Edge in the News

The Courier Mail [1.30.04]

JOHN Brockman is a New York literary agent specialising in those who practise and write about cutting-edge science and how it is changing the world. His website, www.edge.org, has a cult following and is a combination of magazine and online community.

Late last year he asked several hundred thinkers to propose laws about how the world works, some bit of wisdom, some rule of nature, some law-like pattern, either grand or small, that they had noticed in the universe that might be named after them. The results are coming in and they're fascinating.

They're not all about science. Yale University professor of psychology Daniel Gilbert proposed Gilbert's Law: "Happy people are those who do not pass up on an opportunity to laugh at themselves or to make love with someone else. Unhappy people are those who get this backwards." Think about it.

Brian Eno, former member of Roxy Music, music producer and techno-artist, opined that: "Culture is everything we don't have to do." As an explanation, he noted: "We have to clothe ourselves but we didn't have to invent platform shoes or polka-dot bikinis." How true.

But it was science that inspired the most new laws, some distinctly cynical, such as this offering from Kai Kraus, a philosopher and software designer: "93.8127 per cent of all statistics are useless."

Some of the law makers were hard on their chosen profession. "Science can produce knowledge but it cannot produce wisdom," suggested New Scientist  editor-in-chief Alun Anderson.

As for science and communication, according to Anderson, who should know: "A scientist who can speak without jargon is either an idiot or a genius."

Yale University professor of computer science David Gelerntier observed: "Scientists know all the right answers and none of the right questions." Gelerntier's other laws are: "Computers make people stupid," and "One expert is worth a million intellectuals."

Many of us might feel it would be stimulating to be at a dinner party with these people, provided you didn't have to contribute. But one man from Australia who'd feel at home would be Allan Snyder, professor of several things at the Australian National University. He has suggested: "Most creative science is wrong, but the deception ultimately leads to the benefit of mankind." Think Freud. Another of Snyder's laws is: "Everyone steals from everyone else, but they do so unconsciously. This has evolved for our very survival. It maximises the innovative power of society." He obviously doesn't teach undergraduates.

Leo Chapula is a professor of ophthalmology and neurobiology and has served on many research funding panels. He noted something that will surprise many lay people: "Don't underestimate the importance of fashion in doing science. There is a price to pay for originality, and every working scientist knows this."

There were more thoughtful comments on life outside science, including this one from University of California, Berkeley, associate professor Marti Hearst: "A public figure is often condemned for an action that is taken unfairly out of context but nevertheless reflects, in a compelling and encapsulated manner, an underlying truth about that person." Take that, Tony Blair.

Artist and lecturer Art Kleiner has noticed that: "Every organisation operates on behalf of the perceived needs and priorities of some core group of key people. This purpose will trump every other loyalty, including those to shareholders, employees, customers and other constituents."

Philosopher Daniel C. Dennett has perhaps explained the enormous sales of Mike Moore's books with this observation: "On any important topic we tend to have a dim idea of what we hope to be true, and when an author writes the words we want to read, we tend to fall for it, no matter how shoddy the arguments."

Author Mike Godwin noted the great truth that: "As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches one (that is, becomes certain)."

Brockman's project is a lot of fun, although if you tried to live by some of the laws thrown up by it you'd go mad.

As philanthropist Chris Anderson said: "Humans are engineered to seek for laws, whether or not they're actually there."

 

Copyright 2004 Nationwide News Pty Limited  

Technobabble
The Times [1.19.04]

ISAAC NEWTON had one, as did Michael Faraday and some chap called Murphy. What if you could distil your own sharpest observation into a scientific law that would bear your name? The literary agent John Brockman recently posed the question to the scientists, thinkers and technology innovators who visit his online salon at Edge.org. Now 164 of them have replied—and their insights make for wonderful reading.

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Only the Salon Knows the Answer But who asks the questions? Even scientists of the Third Culture look for natural laws
Frankfurter Allgemeine [1.18.04]

"Anything simple enough to be understandable will not be complicated enough to behave intelligently, while anything complicated enough to behave intelligently will not be simple enough to understand." So says the newest natural law, for which the world can thank science historian George B. Dyson. He formulated this statement just in time for the beginning of the new year, and it is something simple enough to be complicated. Dyson conducted himself so intelligently because he, along with nearly two hundred thinkers, researchers and their representatives, was invited to meet in the Internet forum, Edge.

Edge was founded by John Brockman, the New York propagator of the Third Culture, and it permits him sufficient time and leisure to conduct a virtual salon in addition to his considerable activities as literary agent. Every year he poses a question to the networked members of this community that is usually simple enough to allow even for complicated answers.

The most recent edition of this parlor game, partly earnest but also beset with irony and serious jokes, takes the natural law as its theme. What law, Brockman asks the great minds, could be filtered out of their empirical research and would be worthy of carrying their names? If Kepler and Newton could have their laws, why shouldn't J. Craig Venter be worthy of one today? He, with no less ambition than his agent, names five laws, the third of which states, "We have the tools for the first time in the history of humanity to answer virtually any question about biology and our own evolution."

Coming from the man who cracked the human genome this hardly surprises us, as is the case with Ray Kurzweil, who long ago hurried ahead to meet the future, and stays on the border of what we can expect with his "Law of Accelerating Returns." Because Kurzweil strove to expand the results of his observations almost to book-length, the collected, full-length contributions are available on the website www.edge.org.

At the same time, aphoristic condensation is also not foreign to the participating givers and discoverers of laws. Archeologist Timothy Taylor determines with lapidary concision that "There are no laws of human behavior." He is not the only skeptic in the enlightened group. For biologist Rupert Sheldrake, "The laws of nature are more like habits," and cultural historian James J. O'Donnell warns, "If it feels good, don't do it." But if you do do it, do so boldly, just as Luther recommended to sinners. Pecca fortiter—If you're going to do it at all, do it right.

From the mathematical and the biological, to the economic and the social the answers roam into the cosmologic and don't even exclude religion. Among the participants is Richard Dawkins, discoverer of the selfish gene and, possibly because of that, a knowledgable atheist, who suggests, "God cannot lose… When comprehension expands, gods contract—but then redefine themselves to restore the status quo." In his analysis of prayer, economist and psychologist Nicholas Humphrey identifies something similar: "In a dangerous world there will always be more people around whose prayers for their own safety have been answered than those whose prayers have not." Although that may be evident to us, we soon begin once again to brood along with philosopher Daniel C. Dennett, who identifies the "needy reader," someone who "tends to fall for the words he wants to read, no matter how shoddy the arguments."

A problem? One that is unsolvable? Quantum physicist David Deutsch argues that "inherently insoluble problems are inherently boring." Adhering to such a statement he might give up on many a riddle, but at the same time this is a scientific performance. "Good science," declares astrophysicist Paul Steinhardt, "creates two challenging puzzles for each puzzle it resolves." Such laws can also probably all be applied to culture, for which all-around avant-gardist Brian Eno delivers a definition: "Culture is everything we don't have to do."

This is a case for Steven Pinker, the experimental psychologist who considers human intelligence and social relations. He is more cautious than David Gelernter, to whom three (natural) laws occur. First, the computer scientist diagnoses, "Computers make people stupid." Second, "One expert is worth a million intellectuals." And third, "Scientists know all the right answers and none of the right questions."

In the end it may be that scientists are like the rest of humanity, as psychologist David G. Myers reminds us. "Most people," he proclaims, "see themselves as better than average." As if that weren't bad enough, he follows this with the "Myers Law of Writing": "Anything that can be misunderstood will be." So it's not better to understand? Gregory Benford maintains that "Any technology that does not appear magical is insufficiently advanced." But what does "advanced" mean? Life, brain researcher Ernst Pöppel has determined, "occurs three seconds at a time." Even the avant garde can't escape from that.

JORDAN MEJIAS

© All rights reserved. Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung GmbH, Frankfurt

 (Translation by Christopher Williams)

[Original German text]

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The New York Times [1.9.04]

Nature abhors a vacuum. Gravitational force is inversely proportional to the square of the distance between two objects. Over the course of evolution, each species develops larger body sizes. If something can go wrong, it will.

Such are some of nature's laws as handed down by Aristotle, Newton, Edward Cope and Murphy. And regardless of their varying accuracy (and seriousness), it takes an enormous amount of daring to posit them in the first place. Think of it: asserting that what you observe here and now is true for all times and places, that a pattern you perceive is not just a coincidence but reveals a deep principle about how the world is ordered.

If you say, for example, that whenever you have tried to create a vacuum, matter has rushed in to fill it, you are making an observation. But say that "nature abhors a vacuum" and you are asserting something about the essence of things. Similarly, when Newton discovered his law of gravitation, he was not simply accounting for his observations. It has been shown that his crude instruments and approximate measurements could never have justified the precise and elegant conclusions. That is the power of natural law: the evidence does not make the law plausible; the law makes the evidence plausible.

But what kind of natural laws can now be so confidently formulated, disclosing a hidden order and forever bearing their creator's names? We no longer even hold Newton's laws sacred; 20th-century physics turned them into approximations. Cope, the 19th-century paleontologist, created his law about growing species size based on dinosaurs; the idea has now become somewhat quaint. Someday even an heir to Capt. Edward Aloysius Murphy might have to modify the law he based on his experience about things going awry in the United States Air Force in the 1940's.

So now, into the breach comes John Brockman, the literary agent and gadfly, whose online scientific salon, Edge.org, has become one of the most interesting stopping places on the Web. He begins every year by posing a question to his distinguished roster of authors and invited guests. Last year he asked what sort of counsel each would offer George W. Bush as the nation's top science adviser. This time the question is "What's your law?"

"There is some bit of wisdom," Mr. Brockman proposes, "some rule of nature, some lawlike pattern, either grand or small, that you've noticed in the universe that might as well be named after you." What, he asks, is your law, one that's ready to take a place near Kepler's and Faraday's and Murphy's.

More than 150 responses totaling more than 20,000 words have been posted so far at www.edge.org/q2004/q04_print.html. The respondents form an international gathering of what Mr. Brockman has called the "third culture" - scientists and science-oriented intellectuals who are, he believes, displacing traditional literary intellectuals in importance. They include figures like the scientists Freeman Dyson and Richard Dawkins, innovators and entrepreneurs like Ray Kurzweil and W. Daniel Hillis, younger mavericks like Douglas Rushkoff and senior mavericks like Stewart Brand, mathematicians, theoretical physicists, computer scientists, psychologists, linguists and journalists....

The New York Times [1.9.04]

Nature abhors a vacuum. Gravitational force is inversely proportional to the square of the distance between two objects. Over the course of evolution, each species develops larger body sizes. If something can go wrong, it will.

Such are some of nature's laws as handed down by Aristotle, Newton, Edward Cope and Murphy. And regardless of their varying accuracy (and seriousness), it takes an enormous amount of daring to posit them in the first place. Think of it: asserting that what you observe here and now is true for all times and places, that a pattern you perceive is not just a coincidence but reveals a deep principle about how the world is ordered.

If you say, for example, that whenever you have tried to create a vacuum, matter has rushed in to fill it, you are making an observation. But say that ''nature abhors a vacuum'' and you are asserting something about the essence of things. Similarly, when Newton discovered his law of gravitation, he was not simply accounting for his observations. It has been shown that his crude instruments and approximate measurements could never have justified the precise and elegant conclusions. That is the power of natural law: the evidence does not make the law plausible; the law makes the evidence plausible.

But what kind of natural laws can now be so confidently formulated, disclosing a hidden order and forever bearing their creator's names? We no longer even hold Newton's laws sacred; 20th-century physics turned them into approximations. Cope, the 19th-century paleontologist, created his law about growing species size based on dinosaurs; the idea has now become somewhat quaint. Someday even an heir to Capt. Edward Aloysius Murphy might have to modify the law he based on his experience about things going awry in the United States Air Force in the 1940's.

So now, into the breach comes John Brockman, the literary agent and gadfly, whose online scientific salon, Edge.org, has become one of the most interesting stopping places on the Web. He begins every year by posing a question to his distinguished roster of authors and invited guests. Last year he asked what sort of counsel each would offer George W. Bush as the nation's top science adviser. This time the question is ''What's your law?''

The Hartfort Courant [1.8.04]

Everything answers to the rule of law. Nature. Science. Society. All of it obeys a set of codes...It's the thinker's challenge to put words to these unwritten rules. Do so, and he or she may go down in history. Like a Newton or, more recently, a Gordon Moore, who in 1965 coined the most cited theory of the technological age, an observation on how computers grow exponentially cheaper and more powerful... Recently, John Brockman went looking for more laws.

..."It's interesting to sit back and watch this crowd move the question in different directions that I hadn't intended," says Brockman, who has been posting answers to the annual question online since 1997... This year's results, published on edge.org, run the gamut from brainy principles to homespun observations in the tradition of Murphy's Law...If all this theorizing sounds a little high-flown, it's not, says Brockman. The important questions of life aren't restricted to an exclusive club - this just happens to be the intellectual company Brockman keeps.

" They're not sitting around looking at their work in awe and wonder," he says. "They're looking at experiments and empirical results and asking, `Where do we go from here?'" 
... As for choosing a favorite among the crop of submissions, Brockman invokes a law of his own: "Nobody knows, and you can't find out."

The Hartfort Courant [1.8.04]

Everything answers to the rule of law. Nature. Science. Society. All of it obeys a set of codes...It's the thinker's challenge to put words to these unwritten rules. Do so, and he or she may go down in history. Like a Newton or, more recently, a Gordon Moore, who in 1965 coined the most cited theory of the technological age, an observation on how computers grow exponentially cheaper and more powerful... Recently, John Brockman went looking for more laws.

The Wall Street Journal [1.1.04]

Heisenberg has one, and so do Boyle and Maxwell: A scientific principle, law or rule with their moniker attached.... It isn't every day that a researcher discovers the uncertainty principle, an ideal gas law, or the mathematical structure of electromagnetism. And ours is the era of real-estate moguls, phone companies and others slapping their name on every building, stadium and arena in sight.... So, John Brockman, a New York literary agent, writer and impresario of the online salon Edge, figures it is time for more scientists to get in on the whole naming thing.... As a New Year's exercise, he asked scores of leading thinkers in the natural and social sciences for "some bit of wisdom, some rule of nature, some law-like pattern, either grand or small, that you've noticed in the universe that might as well be named after you."...The responses, to be posted soon on Mr. Brockman's Web site www.edge.org, range from the whimsical to the somber, from cosmology to neuroscience...You can find other proposed laws of nature on the Edge Web site. Who knows? Maybe one or more might eventually join Heisenberg in the nomenclature pantheon.

The Wall Street Journal [1.1.04]

Heisenberg has one, and so do Boyle and Maxwell: A scientific principle, law or rule with their moniker attached.

It isn't every day that a researcher discovers the uncertainty principle, an ideal gas law, or the mathematical structure of electromagnetism. And ours is the era of real-estate moguls, phone companies and others slapping their name on every building, stadium and arena in sight.

So, John Brockman, a New York literary agent, writer and impresario of the online salon Edge, figures it is time for more scientists to get in on the whole naming thing.

As a New Year's exercise, he asked scores of leading thinkers in the natural and social sciences for "some bit of wisdom, some rule of nature, some law-like pattern, either grand or small, that you've noticed in the universe that might as well be named after you."

The responses, to be posted soon on Mr. Brockman's Web site www.edge.org, range from the whimsical to the somber, from cosmology to neuroscience.

Some of the proposed laws have the whiff of a paradigm shift. Harvard University psychologist Steven Kosslyn is known for his work at the border of mind and brain, including placebo effects. Hence, Kosslyn's First Law: "Body and mind are not as separate as they appear to be; not only does the state of the body affect the mind, but vice-versa."

Author Jay Ogilvy, a co-founder of the Global Business Network, has a similar hunch, He questions whether the mind can be reduced to a storm of electrical impulses and droplets of neurotransmitters. According to Ogilvy's Law, it's fine to recognize that the Cartesian separation of mind and matter went too far (the mind, pace Descartes, does have something to do with the brain). But that doesn't compel us to go to the other extreme, that everything mental can be completely reduced to brain activity and that mind can be reduced to matter.

Irene Pepperberg, too, has mind on her mind. A visiting professor at the MIT Media Lab, her studies challenge the cognitive-science dogma that only humans are capable of sophisticated language and consciousness. Alex, a parrot she trained, regularly spouts novel sentences, yet skeptics insist he has no understanding of what he is saying.

Hence, Pepperberg's (exasperated, if I may say so) Law of Comparative Cognition: "Any behavior exhibited by young children that is taken as evidence of the early emergence of intelligence will, when subsequently exhibited by nonhumans, be interpreted by many humans as a set of simple stimulus-response associations lacking cognitive processing."

A strand of humility runs through the offerings. These are glory days for cosmology, with ever-better space telescopes drawing a bead on the origins and evolution of the universe. Yet astrophysicist John Barrow, of the University of Cambridge, cautions in his First Law, "Any Universe simple enough to be understood is too simple to produce a mind able to understand it."

Physicist Freeman Dyson, emeritus professor of physics at the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, N.J., is no more sanguine. In Dyson's Law of Obsolescence, he warns, "If you are writing history and try to keep it up-to-date to a time T before the present, it will be out-of-date within a time T after the present.

This law applies also to scientific review articles." To which technology author ("Machines Who Think") Pamela McCorduck adds her own caveat: "A linear projection into the future of any science or technology is like a form of propaganda -- often persuasive, almost always wrong." Take that, fans of New Year's predictions.

One veteran of the campaign to put pedagogy on a scientific footing questions whether discoveries in developmental neuroscience -- such as the power of experience to profoundly alter a child's brain -- can serve as the basis for better teaching. As his law, psychologist Howard Gardner of Harvard University offers, "You can never go directly from a scientific discovery to an educational recommendation: All educational practices presuppose implicit or explicit value judgments."

Mathematics inspired John Allen Paulos of Temple University, Philadelphia, to devise his Law of Coincidence: "People often note some unlikely conjunction of events and marvel at the coincidence. Could anything be more wonderfully improbable, they wonder? The answer is yes. The most amazing coincidence of all would be the complete absence of coincidence."

John Maddox learned a thing or two about human nature in 23 years as editor of the journal Nature.

Hence, his First and Second Laws: "Those who scorn the 'publish or perish' principle are the most eager to see their own manuscripts published quickly and given wide publicity -- and the least willing to see their length reduced. Reviewers who are best placed to understand an author's work are the least likely to draw attention to its achievements, but are prolific sources of minor criticism, especially the identification of typos."

You can find other proposed laws of nature on the Edge Web site. Who knows? Maybe one or more might eventually join Heisenberg in the nomenclature pantheon.

A Week in Books: Core principles are needed in the muddled business of books
Independent.co.uk [1.1.04]

The literary agent John Brockman, who makes over significant scientists into successful authors, has posted an intriguing question on his Edge website. He seeks suggestions for contemporary "laws", just as Boyle, Newton, Faraday and other pioneers gave their names to the rules of the physical universe. (That eminent pair, Sod and Murphy, soon followed suit.) Brockman advises his would-be legislators to stick to the scientific disciplines, and you can find their responses at www.edge.org.

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Independent.co.uk [1.1.04]

The literary agent John Brockman, who makes over significant scientists into successful authors, has posted an intriguing question on his Edge website. He seeks suggestions for contemporary "laws", just as Boyle, Newton, Faraday and other pioneers gave their names to the rules of the physical universe. (That eminent pair, Sod and Murphy, soon followed suit.) Brockman advises his would-be legislators to stick to the scientific disciplines, and you can find their responses at www.edge.org.

The Times Higher Education Supplement [12.31.03]

"It is like having a front-row seat at the ultimate scientific seminar series."
— Matin Durani (Deputy Editor, Physics World)

The Third Culture Issue Editor's Letter: SCIENCE AT THE TABLE
Seed [10.31.03]

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.

Read the full article →

American Scientist [6.30.03]

Science has always had things to say about human nature, and now more than ever. The shelves of bookshops groan with offerings that show how everything we think about ourselves is being transformed by "revolutionary developments in molecular biology, genetic engineering, nanotechnology, artificial intelligence, artificial life, chaos theory, massive parallelism, neural nets, the inflationary universe, fractals, complex adaptive systems, linguistics, superstrings, biodiversity, the human genome, expert systems, punctuated equilibrium, cellular automata, fuzzy logic, virtual reality, cyberspace, and teraflop machines. Among others." The list comes from an article [*] by literary agent John Brockman on the upmarket scientific Web site Edge (www.edge.org). Out go fuddy-duddy Shakespeare and Proust, Aristotle and Mill, and in comes a chorus of scientific cheerleaders who believe they have all the answers to life, human nature and everything. But curiously absent are the voices of historians, anthropologists and most psychologists, whose empirical disciplines surely have some claim to tell us more than a bit about human nature.

The public may like the triumphal note of these books, but it has fewer critical weapons at its disposal than some of us might wish. Thank heavens, then, for Daniel Dennett, a distinguished philosopher with an insatiable appetite for science and especially for the places where science needs interpretation. Scientists and philosophers need one another, he observes: Philosophers need to know the relevant scientific facts, and scientists need to know the history of philosophy. As Dennett says in commenting on Brockman's article, "Scientists who think their up-to-date scientific knowledge renders them immune to the illusions that lured Aristotle and Hume and Kant and the others into . . . difficulties are in for a rude awakening." Among the topics that show the need for interpretation are consciousness (with its curious habit of eluding science) and free will.......[continued]

The Times Higher Education Supplement [6.5.03]

With research cash increasingly targeted at interdiscipIinary study and cutting-edge science becoming ever-more complex, the aphorism 'it's not what you know but who you know' has never been more apt. Harriet Swain explains why networking is now a key academic skill 

...Smolin, along with Rees and Dawkins, has also been prominent on a website (www.edge.org) run by John Brockman. This site has brought together thinkers such as Daniel Dennett, Steven Pinker and Lynn Margulis to explore what Brockman refers to as "the third culture"—bridging the gap between scientific ideas and the "intelligent reading public". [Janna] Levin describes Brockman as a man who "knows everybody", who "collects people - and some pretty interesting ones". She met [Brian] Eno through Brockman, who also introduced Smolin and Jaron Lanier, inventor of virtual reality, to each other. This introduction was made at an event held to bring together Dawkins and the web intelligentsia who were fascinated by his "memes" theory—the idea of cultural replicators such as tunes and ideas being passed from person to person in a similar way to genes—in some ways a paeon to the powers of networking.

Suddeutsche Zeitung [6.4.03]

There are many reasons for this intellectual isolationism. One is purely practical: in the decades after the Second World War, scientists at American universities and institutes specialized like never before. This led to linguistic microtopes that laid a high value on educational background. The second is historical: Hardly any nation mistrusts European intellectual life as much as the United States. Didn’t founding fathers of the American pragmatist school of thought like Ralph Waldo Emerson, William James, and John Dewey themselves promote a turning away from the abstractions of traditional philosophy?

...The intellectuals with the greatest influence over the destiny of the nation are the leading thinkers of the conservative Neocons, who develop their concepts outside of public view in the debating clubs of think tanks.

One exception is the natural scientists, who, in recent years, have rehabilitated the idea of the public intellectual. This began out of pure professional necessity. Interdisciplinary work compelled researchers to write texts that colleagues outside of their own fields could also understand without specialized training. Thus a new form of scientific literature came into being, which...John Brockman named "The Third Culture." Natural scientists, according to Brockman, are tackling humanity’s biggest questions, those which were previously in the domain of humanities scholars and clerics. He has in mind above all authors such as neuropsychologist Steven Pinker, biologist Stephen Jay Gould, or mathematician Marvin Minsky—who in their books mount direct attacks on the humanities.

CBSNEWS.com [5.28.03]

 

"Katinka Matson, an amazing digital artist, merging the technological with the botanical in a beautiful way. "

 Katinka Matson’s Scanner Art
Finally, about Katinka’s flowers! I hope you take a long look at our "photo" essay (really a "scanner" essay) of a few of Ms. Matson’s remarkable studies. (I regret that to publish her work on our website, we had to make dumbed-down petite versions.) When printed on large paper or shown, as they should also be, on high-definition television screens, Katinka’s scanned creations are towering, dense and richly hued. For several years, using the same digital flatbed scanners most of us simply copy documents with, this Manhattan-based artist unlocked the simple elegance of nature. Without cameras or special lenses, Katinka Matson captures the unfiltered raw vibrancy of lilies, tulips, and daisies. Closer to painting with nature than to containing and “capturing” it, Ms. Matson’s work is raw, striking, if not shocking. There is honest power in this fusion of technology with n ature and it’s made possible by an inkjet printer and a humble scanner.


See CBS News Video & "Scanner Essay" on Katinka Matson's Art

Katinka Matson is cofounder of Edge and it's resident artist. Her work can be seen at katinkamatson.com.

BRILLIANT!
The Sunday Times [3.8.03]

Farewell, Dolly: Robbie Hudson finds the cloned sheep honoured at brilliant scientific forum www. edge.org.

Are you going to be part of the last generation to die, or the first one to live for ever? Ask this on a daytime phone-in show and you would attract fanatics calling down divine vengeance. 

Canvass a select group of theorists who like to "ask each other the questions they are asking themselves", however, and you might prompt a serious discussion of issues usually consigned to science fiction. 

This is Edge's raison d'etre. The website grew out of a debating society called the Reality Club. Taking the debate online gave us access to its intelligent forum, where luminaries such as the experimental psychologist Steven Pinker and the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins lock horns with other able minds. 

Edge's huge list of topics includes mankind's ability to become one with machines, and the implications of Dolly the cloned sheep's recent death. An enjoyable feature is the annual question asked of the contributors. This year's was: "Imagine you are George W Bush's scientific adviser. What would you do?" 

Suggestions included $ 1 billion to be spent on science fellowships for scholarsfrom Muslim countries and travel to Mars. 

Edge's combination of political engagement and blue-sky thinking makes stimulating reading for anyone seeking a glimpse into the next decade.

Copyright © 2003 Times Newspapers Limited 

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THE THIRD CULTURE Editorial
Winston-Salem Journal [2.27.03]

Education during most of the 20th century divided, all too neatly, between liberal arts and the sciences. You studied one or the other, but rarely both. It was C.P. Snow who divided the world of the intellect into literary criticism and science. But in recent years, science, once relegated by academia to the sidelines as a sort of technical specialty, has been where most of the worthwhile intellectual activity has been taking place. And a lot of what science is discovering tends to stand much of what literary intellects believed on its head. 

So, anyway, says John Brockman, an author and the editor and publisher of the Web site, edge.org. Brockman has a theory about the way in which science has flowed over into the liberal arts and forged a partnership between the two disciplines that Brockman calls "the third culture." Brockman argues that a growing number of scientists are writing elegant books and articles linking science and its discoveries to the real world of the average person. 

What used to be the purview of philosophers and poets, interpreting the world for the rest of us, has been taken over by scientists. Brockman argues that scientists look forward and change the world, while philosophers and, perhaps less so, poets examine and interpret their predecessors. 

While not knocking history, Brockman wonders at the value of the intellectual debate over "who was or was not a Stalinist in 1937, or what the sleeping arrangements were for guests at a Bloomsbury weekend in the early part of the 20th century." 

Meanwhile, science is about "the new and important ideas that drive our times: revolutionary developments in molecular biology, genetic engineering, nanotechnology, artificial intelligence, artificial life, chaos theory, massive parallelism, neural nets, the inflationary universe, fractals, complex adaptive systems, linguistics, superstrings, biodiversity, the human genome, expert systems, punctuated equilibrium, cellular automata, fuzzy logic, virtual reality, cyberspace and teraflop machines. Among others." 

Brockman offers examples of where science and art ought to, but don't always, come together. The art critic who doesn't understand visual perception is suspect. So are those who balk at genetic modification though ignorant of evolutionary biology and genetics. 

Naturally, Brockman's theories are subject to demeaning and intellectual disagreement, and to Brockman's credit, he provides his critics space to make their points. But the basic point belongs to Brockman, who has stirred the thought pot and added new spices. Many whose education spanned the middle of the last century can identify with Brockman's description of the sciences as technical specialties. The adage popular then was that students who got A's did the technical work, while people who managed only C's wound up running things. 

That this adage may no longer hold true seems like progress.

Copyright © 2003 Winston-Salem Journal  

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Suddeutsche Zeitung [1.13.03]

In the center of Cambridge at the intersection of Vassar and Main Street, you can still see the future growing. There the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is building an institute according to the plans of Frank Gehry. When you watch how the construction team translates powerful movements first drafted in lead and paper using concrete forms, steel girders, and sheets of aluminum, you get a sense of the euphoric mood that has reigned in the natural sciences in the last few decades.

But then came George W. Bush, September 11, and the crisis in Iraq. Everything now revolves around fear, war, and politics, and Gehry's new construction appears like an echo of a long gone era of progress and hope. Because the last decade brought forth not only scientific successes, but also a new scientific culture, the struggle for the future no longer takes place in privileged circles, but on the public stage.

The worldview with the greatest profile in this regard is the "third culture," because it attempts to find scientific answers to the most important questions facing humanity. New York literary agent John Brockman coined the term, represents most of the stars of this movement, and conducts its most important debating club on his internet platform, Edge (http://www.edge.org).

Every year since 1998, he has asked a public question just before the turn of the new year. This year, he drafted a fictitious e-mail from George W. Bush asking how the Edge community would respond to the president's question, "What are the most pressing scientific problems for the nation and the world, and what is your advice on how I can deal with them?"

The natural ambassadors

"Previously, countless articles in the scientific publications had complained," explains Brockman, "that the office of scientific advisor has become greatly weakened—with the consequence that as little as no public discourse about the sciences takes place under the current administration. Bush's science advisor, John Marburger, enjoys a spotless reputation, but the office for his ministry is located distant from the White House, and he has neither regular access to the president nor a public forum. That shows how much interest this government has in the sciences."

John Brockman has published 85 responses on his website to date. Nearly all of them contain sharp words for the president. "You are in an amazing position," reminds computer scientist Jaron Lanier. "You are the most powerful president in a generation. Be bold! Science and technology are the most potent tools mankind has for improving our circumstances." Chaos theoretician Doyne Farmer postulates, "Science is patriotic." One must only remember the origins of the nation. "Good old American know how is the foundation that has made this a great country. It is no coincidence that so many of the founding fathers, such as Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, had a lifelong passion for science. Science is the engine that has fueled our prosperity."

In order to renew public excitement for the sciences, computer scientist David Gelernter of Yale University makes the resolute pitch, "Focus the nation's mind on a big, real and exciting problem. Ideally we ought to have a competitor to keep us playing our best game—but if the problem is interesting enough, maybe the competitor doesn't matter." The Australian physicist Paul Davies advises just the same: "Many commentators are urging George Bush Jr. to finish in Iraq what President George Bush Sr. began in the Gulf War. Mr. President, I urge you to apply this advise in space. Take up the challenge. Go to Mars! Even without a political challenge like Sputnik."

According to British evolutionary biologist Brian Goodwin, America stands before just such a dramatic challenge, one that far exceeds Iraq: "Accelerating the rate of CO2 increase in the atmosphere by profligate use of Iraq's vast oil supplies, together with the continuing deforestation of the Amazon, will not only turn the Amazon basin into a parched desert but plunge the entire mid-West into prolonged drought, resulting in famine in your own land." Behavioral researcher William Calvin blows the same tune: "When the patient is civilization itself, science can provide a heads-up—but only the best politicians have the talent to implement the foresight. And coming on stage now is a stunning example of how civilization must rescue itself."

Also according to Joel Garreau, a writer for the Washington Post, "We are entering an era of scientific change that is rocking no less than human nature itself." Above all, it is now worth capitalizing on the progress that genetic research has made. Physicist Freeman Dyson suggests calling into life a worldwide genome project to catalog the genetic structures of all species in the next 50 years.

Nobel Prize-winner and neurobiologist Eric Kandel believes on the contrary that one must above all research the biology that lies at the foundations of human consciousness. The Editor-in-Chief of Nature, Philip Campbell, sees completely different priorities — in light of the million people who die of malaria every year, he argues that we should be dedicating all of our powers to finding a vaccine. Against the background of the stem-cell debate futurologist Ray Kurzweil argues for the development of a technology with whose help a stem can be developed out of the DNA of every individual cell in order to evade the use of controversial embryonic cells while at the same time making overdue medical progress possible.

Kevin Kelly, his colleague from Wired magazine, warns of another danger: "Science, like business, has been totally captured by the next quarter mentality, and it will require a deliberate effort to stress the long view so that our knowledge matches our predicament." Only then do scientific utopias permit themselves to be pursued. And if one is to believe Munich brain researcher Ernst Pöppel, political utopia also follows closely on the heals of the scientific one. "Scientists are natural ambassadors." It is only scientists who bring people and nations together. "Independent of history, religious faith, economic status, gender or color of skin, scientists work together and have worked together to pursue a common goal, i.e. a deeper understanding of nature and culture."

[translation: Christopher Williams]

Copyright © sueddeutsche.de GmbH/Süddeutsche Zeitung GmbH

[Original German text]

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