Edge in the News

Slashdot [1.5.03]

murky.waters writes "The responses to this year's Edge.org question have been published; basically, people were asked to imagine they were nominated as White House science adviser and the President asked them what are some important issues in science and what we should do about them. There are 84 responses, ranging in topic from advanced nanotechnology to the psychology of foreign cultures, and lots of ideas regarding science, technology, politics, and education. The responses were written by academics (e.g. Roger Schank, Marvin Minsky), journalists (Kevin Kelly), Nobel Laureates (Eric Kandel), and others (Alan Alda). Some of responses are politically loaded but the majority has either a more specialised proposal, or general remarks about our world. Many are absolutely fascinating: funny, insightful, interesting, hell even informative. ... One of the most public supporters of the Singularity 'religion', Ray Kurzweil, is a regular at Edge, and currently discussed issues range from said transhumanism to early-universe theories, and many other kinds of exciting and novel science."

ARTS & LETTERS DAILY [1.5.03]

If you had the President’s ear, what would you advise him was the most urgent scientific issue the country faces? Energy? Stem-cell research? Bioterror? Science teaching?... more

Arts & Letters daily [1.5.03]

If you had the President’s ear, what would you advise him was the most urgent scientific issue the country faces? Energy? Stem-cell research? Bioterror? Science teaching?...

The New York Times [1.3.03]

At the end of every year, John Brockman, a literary agent and the publisher of Edge.org, a Web site devoted to science, poses a question to leading scientists, writers and futurists. In 2002, he asked respondents to imagine that they had been nominated as White House science adviser and that President Bush had sought their answer to "What are the pressing scientific issues for the nation and the world, and what is your advice on how I can begin to deal with them?" Here are excerpts of some of the responses.

Mapping the Planet • Professor PlayStation • Little Geniuses • Think Small • Science Without Secrets • Fending Off the Big One • Intellectual Globalization • Cassandras of the Labs • Really Popular Science

[Click here f

The New York Times [1.3.03]

At the end of every year, John Brockman, a literary agent and the publisher of Edge.org, a Web site devoted to science, poses a question to leading scientists, writers and futurists. In 2002, he asked respondents to imagine that they had been nominated as White House science adviser and that President Bush had sought their answer to ''What are the pressing scientific issues for the nation and the world, and what is your advice on how I can begin to deal with them?'' Here are excerpts of some of the responses.

Mapping the Planet

Over the last decade, the human genome project has laid the foundation for a comprehensive understanding of human biology. The translation of the new understanding into cures for human diseases will be a slow and difficult process.

Meanwhile, a new century has begun. It is time to begin a bold new initiative in biology: a planetary genome sequencing project to identify all the segments of the genomes of all the millions of species that live together on the planet.

This would require, first, the aggressive development of new technology for deciphering genes, comparable to the development of computer technology during the last half century, so that the cost of sequencing genes can continue to fall as rapidly as the cost of computing.

The goal would be to complete the sequencing of the biosphere within less than half a century, at a cost comparable with the cost of the human genome. This project would bring an enormous increase in understanding of the ecology of the planet, which could then be translated into practical measures to sustain and improve the environment while allowing continued rapid economic development. It could also lead to the stabilization of the atmosphere and the climate. Let this century be the century of cures for planetary as well as human diseases.

-- Freeman Dyson, retired professor of physics, Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, N.J.

Professor PlayStation

While American schools are notoriously underserving their students, American children are rushing home from class to learn how to succeed in the alternative universes of video games. They spend dozens of hours every week exploring virtual worlds, each with its own set of rules. Barring a complete overhaul of our schools, makers of game systems like Nintendo and PlayStation will continue to be the most successful institutions when it comes to captivating young minds.

SCIENCE JOURNAL [12.26.02]

DEAR READER,

Congratulations! President George W. Bush is considering asking you to serve as his science adviser. He asks that you write him a memo addressing, "What are the pressing scientific issues for the nation and the world, and what is your advice on how I can begin to deal with them?"

So begins this year's online question from Edge, an e-salon of leading scientists and members of the "Third Culture" (in answer to C.P. Snow's scientists vs. humanists) presided over by Manhattan literary agent and author John Brockman. In past years, the Edge community has weighed in on the most important invention of the last 2000 years (Printing press? Clock? Stirrups? Knitting? The Pill?) and on what questions have disappeared (Was Einstein right? Are you hoping for a boy or a girl?).

This year -- with smallpox vaccination, bioterror, stem-cell research, climate change, energy policy and missile defense dominating news -- the annual question eschews intellectual posturing and gets down to practicalities.

Much of the advice is unlikely to please the West Wing. Marvin Minsky, the computer and artificial-intelligence pioneer, recommends scrapping "the whole 'Homeland Defense' thing" as "cost-ineffective." Calculating that the lifetime cost of preventing each airplane fatality will be $100 million or so (with comparable numbers for the tsunami of other public and private security measures undertaken since 9/11), he suggests "we could save a thousand times as many lives at the same cost by various simple public-health measures."

I suspect Prof. Minsky has "memo-ed" himself out of consideration, as has William Calvin of the University of Washington, Seattle. Prof. Calvin sounds a call to arms on abrupt climate change. In contrast to the inexorable but slow alterations depicted by most models of greenhouse-driven climate change, which we might adapt to, in an abrupt change the planet "flips out of a warm-and-wet mode like today into the alternate mode, which is cool, dry, windy, dusty." That has occurred naturally dozens of times in Earth's past.

Before you greenhouse skeptics groan about scientists who can't decide whether we're imperiled by warming or cooling, recall that global warming can cause a change in the northern extension of the Gulf Stream that could plunge Europe into a little ice age.

Prof. Calvin recognizes that getting politicians to act in the face of scientific uncertainty and industry-backed opposition is "like herding kittens," but notes that "the physician who waits until dead certain of a diagnosis before acting is likely to wind up with a dead patient."

Kevin Kelly, co-founder of Wired magazine, urges a global reconnaissance project: "We have identified as few as 5% of all the species living on earth. ... We are trying to run a planet with only a dim sense of what it is." Since we might run it into the ground, physicist Paul Davies of Australia's Maquarie University resurrects a proposal by the president's father: a manned mission to Mars with the goal of founding a "permanent self-sufficient colony."

For those of us left behind, psychologist David Lykken of the University of Minnesota advises Mr. Bush to harness the power of science to stop crime. The vast majority of crime in America, he suggests, is committed by "a growing and self-reproducing underclass consisting of the unsocialized offspring of single mothers." What we therefore need is research into "a program of parental licensure." To rear a baby, you'd have to be mature, self-supporting, healthy and law-abiding. "Babies born to unlicensed parents would be placed for permanent adoption."

Although there are pleas galore for government-funded research into puzzles ranging from the biology of consciousness to elementary particles (one is shocked -- shocked! -- that these suggestions come from researchers who might benefit from such funding), the most common theme is improving the truly deplorable state of education, especially science education.

To do that, Steven Pinker, professor of psychology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass., urges the president to tap the science of mind. "Little in instructional practice has been evaluated" scientifically, he writes. "Instead, classroom practice is set by fads, romantic theories, slick packages and political crusades. We need more of these assessments, and faster implementations of what works."

Science education is especially abysmal, and if we don't whip it into shape fast, we're going to be in trouble. Artificial Intelligence pioneer Roger Schank of Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., says science ed is still "about preparing for Harvard in 1892" (Boyle's universal gas law, anyone?) "and not for life in 2003." He urges Mr. Bush to "change our education policy ... emphasize everyday reasoning issues like the use of stem cells or waste cleanup or snow removal or alternative energy sources." As long as science professors prepare "future scientists and not future Presidents, the nation suffers."

You can improve your own science education at www.edge.org, where the Edge memos will be available January 6.

THE YEAR IN IN IDEAS—2002 [12.14.02]

As the moving lens slides along the surface of one of [Katinka] Matson's tulips, it is able to view the flower from all sides; her floral pictures are so intense that looking at them, you almost get the feeling that you are able to peer around the flowers themselves. Another advantage: the distortion that a single lens inevitably creates disappears—details at the corners of these pictures are as sharp and clear as those at the center.

WHICH UNIVERSE WOULD YOU LIKE? Five stars of American science meet in Connecticut to explain first and last things
Frankfurter Allgemeine [8.27.02]

Eastover Farm is halfway between New York and Concord, where the New England transcendentalists surrounding Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson first contemplated their design for a new society. The farmer who lives there likes to think bigger. During the week he represents authors and sells their books in the international marketplace, and when he plays host to five stars of American science on a cloudless summer day, it is guaranteed that he will harvest the depths of their knowledge. This time, in luxuriously green Connecticut, he asks them to explain the cosmos to him - its origin, its life, and its end. "You have to think big," one of the cosmologists even says, matching the opinion of John Brockman, prophet of the Third Culture and experienced weekend farmer.

Seth Lloyd goes first. Because he usually massages atoms at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in order to make them amenable to information processing, he imagines both ourselves and the entire universe as a giant computing machine - a quantum computer, which according to Moore's Law will consume the collected store of energy in the universe in six hundred years. By that time the universe and everything in it would belong to Microsoft. Lloyd, not just a scientist but a jester as well, expresses his hope that between now and then Bill Gates will produce a more reliable software than Windows.

"Does what I am saying make me sound like I've gone crazy?" he asks, only to deliver the hardly comforting reply, "People who work on quantum mechanics talk this way." Consequently, all of those assembled here feel included. Paul Steinhardt does in any case, segueing from Lloyd's computational universe to his own favorite, the cyclic universe. The theoretical astrophysicist from Princeton celebrates our glorious present, an exceptional period in the history of humanity, which according to his argument, is about to mount a new level of evolution. Before us lie, if only we look carefully, the snapshots of the birth, education, and restless years of the universe. While Steinhardt's colleagues are predominantly of the opinion that the fundamentals of the strange history have already been worked out, however, he expresses his doubts. His alternative model, which breaks with the generally accepted understanding of the Big Bang, conceives of time as something as endless as space, and the evolution of the cosmos as a cyclic process. Steinhardt, who holds the position of Albert Einstein Professor in Science at Princeton, is appropriately convinced that his universe of cycles would excite not only his chair's patron, but also Nietzche, not to mention Hindu thinkers.

The good news is that the Big Bang is truly a simple bang. Without fail, following the foreseeable end is a new beginning. The bad news is that after fourteen billion years we currently live in an endphase and will have to leave the new beginning to foreign beings. The Epicureans had it good, believing in the immortality of a single universe in order to suppress their fear of death long before the cosmologists of Eastover Farm. Steinhardt's theory of the eternal cycle, in which expansion and crash alternate, has yet another snag. According to the laws of relativity theory, a large amount - indeed a growing amount - of entropy would have to be left over. Who or what helps us out of this dilemma? There is string theory, for example, which argues for the existence of fine threads in the subatomic regions, instead of waves and particles. For those for whom this model of the universe is still too speculative, it would be better sticking to the professionally tested and eagerly expanded vision of the inflationary universe.

At least its discoverer, Alan Guth, an MIT researcher, is here to explain how the model looks these days. As he begins it becomes quiet in the small circle, which sits in the shade of an almost cosmically aging maple tree, so quiet that it is as if nature - earthly nature anyway - could eavesdrop. Since it was first postulated, explains Guth, inflationary theory has branched out in many directions. One of its more conventional models both borrows from the Big Bang and repudiates it at the same time. It shows how matter comes into being, and how it again and again goes through a rapid expansion and evolution, but the cause - the Big Bang itself - is left out. For the inflation theorist, the universe is flat, homogenous and isotropic; that is, containing the same characteristics everywhere. It is also closed, from which he infers that parallel lines will at some point intersect and a rocket with enough propulsion over a short or very, very long distance will return to its original point of departure. By the way, what happens to dark matter, that mysterious material whose constituent particles have to date only been inferred from the gravitational forces that stabilize galaxies?

Just then, salmon and green asparagus is served, accompanied by conversations not about cosmological riddles, but about shoelaces. But despite the change in topic, the scientific method is still the mode. Finding out why shoelaces tied in different ways will produce the same knot appears to be a colossally complicated mathematical problem. Naturally,the discussion also turns to A New Kind of Science, Stephen Wolfram's scientific book of the season, in which the universe outs itself as a cellular automat. The consensus is that it is overrated and not a revolutionary manifesto. There is no question that the patterns that Wolfram extends for page after page are not sufficient to release an evolutionary process. Algorithmic complexity? For whom hasn't this flash of recognition occurred in the shower. Over coffee and cookies the space program sneaks into the conversation. It is an undertaking that doesn't delight cosmologists so much as amuse them. One of the thinkers jokes that it is as advanced as the Cuban auto industry. Another says that it is pure performance art, only a blessing for business in Houston. There is space travel so that, and because, there is space travel, jokes a third.

Passing the tennis court, which a farm like this can't do without, the digestive walk continues through a pine forest and to a deep green pond. On the way back Ray Kurzweil, the Messiah of spiritual machines, reveals why cosmological speculations will soon be redundant. When in the near future the Singlarity is reached, a transhuman level of intelligence whose existence relies on the melding of man and machine, the destiny of the universe lies in both our hands and the hands that we ourselves shape. At that time we will be able to manipulate the universe according to our desires and whims. Consequently, neither the inclination towards expansion nor the dangers of contraction will be of great concern.

Back under the maple tree, in whose shade the group of five reconstructs itself, Marvin Minsky, the legendary co-founder of the MIT Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, takes his turn. He devotes his talk to the emotional universe, but does not avoid questions that people no longer dare to ask: Who created the universe? And why? His answer: The universe is much too complex to have a single explanation - or should we actually say universes? Our universe is very possibly one among many, extraordinary only because we use it for eating, drinking, and loving, for thinking and feeling, and briefly for living - if we live in it at all. In the end perhaps we are only embedded in a simulation. Who would have designed the program? Even Minsky cannot say.

The last chance for a final revelation is Ray Kurzweil. His intelligent universe is driven by the exponentially accelerating process of technology, which he trusts will even surpass the speed of light. His colleagues from the academy look on skeptically, but do not voice any dissent. We will unlock the mysteries of intelligence, Kurzweil continues, and thanks to the fusion of biological and non-biological intelligence, we will in three hundred years' time rule the universe. Because of this he really doesn't trust the past as a competent guide for the future.

So much optimism nearly drives the participants to end the conversation. They begin a free floating debate, which drives them back and forth across the universe. Guth encourages the exploration of black holes, not to be confused with cosmic wormholes, which Kurzweil - just like the heroes of Star Trek - wants to use as a shortcut for his intergalactic excursions and as a means of overtaking light. Steinhardt suggests that we should realize that we are not familiar with most of what the cosmos consists of and do not understand its greatest force, dark matter. Understand? There is no such thing as a rational process, Minsky objects; it is simply a myth. In his cosmos, emotion is a word we use to circumscribe another form of our thinking that we cannot yet conceive of. Emotion, Kurzweil interrupts, is a highly intelligent form of thinking. "We have a dinner reservation at a nearby country restaurant," says Brockman in an emotionally neutral tone.


JORDAN MEJIAS covers the United States in his capacity as arts correspondent of the German daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. He studied music and Romance languages and literature on both sides of the Atlantic. He has lived in New York since 1974. He is the author of therecently published collection of his German writings under the title Amerika. Ein Porträt in Porträts.

(See Jordan Mejias' EDGE bio page)
 

[translation: Christopher Williams]

Copyright © 2002 Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung GmbH Frankfurter

[Original German text]

Read the full article →

The New York Times [6.15.02]

SCIENCE is a cumulative, fairly collegial venture. But every so often a maverick, working in self-imposed solitude, bursts forth with a book that aims to set straight the world with a new idea. Some of these grand schemes spring from biology, some from physics, some from mathematics. But what they share is the same unnerving message: everything you know is wrong.

A self-employed British theorist named Julian Barbour recently argued that time doesn't exist, and Frank Tipler, a physicist with a theological bent, offered scientific proof, in ''The Physics of Immortality,'' of an eternal hereafter. People still read Julian Jaynes's imposing 1976 book, ''The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind,'' which pinpoints when humanity first became self-aware, and (also from that era) the work of James Lovelock, inventor of the Gaia Hypothesis, holding that the earth -- rocks, air and all -- is a living, breathing superorganism.

But for sheer audacity -- and intellectual salesmanship -- it would be hard to beat Stephen Wolfram, whose 1,263-page, self-published manifesto, ''A New Kind of Science,'' was holding its own last week atop Amazon's best-seller chart, along with ''Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood'' and ''The Nanny Diaries.''

In the long tradition of the scientific loner, Dr. Wolfram, a freelance physicist known among his colleagues for his abrasive and self-aggrandizing ways, has yanked the spotlight onto a strikingly counterintuitive idea -- that the universe is really just a big computer, something that can best be described not by analyzing equations but by trying to figure out what kind of software it runs.

That, however, is just half the story. By short-circuiting the traditional formalities of scientific publication, he has managed to offend not just scientists who think he is wrong but also some who think he is right. What hasn't always come across in the debate, which is shaping up as the intellectual skirmish of the season, is that Dr. Wolfram is not a lone voice in the woods.

Interesting ideas rarely spring up in isolation. The vision Dr. Wolfram has so meticulously laid out in such an arresting manner is part of a movement some call digital physics or digital philosophy -- a worldview that has been slowly developing for 20 years.

sonntagszeitung.ch [5.11.02]

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.

American Scientist [2.28.02]

"What would happen if you collected some of the planet’s best minds in a single room and asked them to share their thoughts? One possible result is manifested in the virtual salon known as the Edge—www.edge.org—a Web site that publishes the e-mail exchanges between a coterie of (mostly) prominent thinkers...The responses are generally written in an engaging, casual style (perhaps encouraged by the medium of e-mail), and are often fascinating and thought-provoking....These are all wonderful, intelligent questions, but what I’d really like to see is an Internet salon of people who have the answers. Can that happen?"

The New York Times [2.27.02]

What preternatural power can prompt Rupert Murdoch, Jeffrey Katzenberg, Richard Dawkins, Neil Simon, Art Buchwald, Frank Gehry and Quincy Jones to sit for hours in a hot room contemplating the nano-sized split ends on gecko toes?

It can only be the TED conference, the three-and-a-half day, $4,000-a-pop annual roundup of brains and glitter in which deep wisdom and technological derring-do are served up on an intellectual pu pu platter by 70 speakers and performers.

This year's conclave, the 17th and the swan song of TED's founder, the impresario Richard Saul Wurman, was billed as ''Simply the Greatest Design Conference There Ever Was'' (modesty not being one of Mr. Wurman's many attributes). TED stands for Technology Entertainment and Design, a synergy the 66-year-old Mr. Wurman, probably best known for his Access series of travel guides, detected quite early when he dreamed up the conference in 1984.

Lake Wobegon it isn't. In the self-referential utopian community that is TED, even the juggler has a MacArthur fellowship and the neighbors, if not good-looking, are brilliant, fascinating and sometimes astonishingly rich.

Where else but at TED would Mr. Katzenberg, standing Armani-deep in sawdust with Spirit, his stallion and the namesake of his new animated film, be upstaged by Rex, a biologically inspired robot with springy legs and gecko-like feet capable of navigating the outer reaches of the Amazon -- specifically, the leg of the Amazon.com founder, Jeff Bezos, a longtime Tedster?

It can get deep. Very deep. Steven Pinker, the eminent cognitive psychologist, found himself deep in conversation with the singer Naomi Judd about the role of the amygdala, the part of the brain that colors memory with emotion; something, he aptly noted, ''that would not happen at the meeting of the Cognitive Neuroscience Society.''

Wired [2.9.02]

TNT Weekly - "A good global perspective on nanotech." (www.cientifica.com)
Edge - "Awesome indie newsletter with brilliant contributors, emceed by John Brockman." Monthly. (www.edge.org)

 

 

>>Mickey Kaus, editor of the political commentary site Kausfiles.com


Imus on MSNBC - "A good one-stop fill on what the inbred Russert-esque chattering class in the NY-Wash corridor thinks is important." Daily links. (www.msnbc.com/yools/newstools/e/emailextra.asp?nfeature=5)

 

 

>>Rita Dove, former poet laureate


A.Word.A.Day - Like "an intellectual Advent calendar," a daily post offers "a new word, along with its history and some quirky, fascinating explanation about its derivation." (www.wordsmith.org/awad)

 

 

>>Newt Gingrich, former speaker of the House of Representatives


Healthcare Business News and eHealth & Technology - "Great coverage of new ideas and technologies that can save lives." Links and capsules. (www.healthleaders.com)
The Daily Policy Digest - Links from the Dallas-based National Center for Policy Analysis. (www.ncpa.org)

 

 

>>Paul Saffo, director, Institute for the Future


DrFish - News stories and analysis on subjects as varied as the peril of nanotech post-September 11 to Dunkin' Donuts' innovations with "mobile pull advertising" to The Simpsons. Run by entrepreneur William Cockayne. (nemo_fish@yahoo.com)

 

 

>>Bruce Sterling, novelist and editor of his own Viridian Notes   >>email newsletter, devoted to commentary on ecological concerns


nettime - Lightly moderated international discussion list that, according to its members, critiques consumerist culture while avoiding the pessimism and cynicism of most intellectuals and the "old" media. (www.nettime.org)

 

 

>>Ken Layne, columnist, Online Journalism Review


ARS Week in Review - "The sort of list that breeds paranoia." An edited selection of the week's posts on watchdog group alt.religion.scientology. (xenu.net/archive/WIR)
Lonely Planet Comet - "Best travel list out there. Covers cheap fares, weird towns, horror stories, strange souvenirs, and creepy government policies that may take effect just as you land in Mumbalumbia." Monthly. (www.lonelyplanet.com/comet)

 

 

>>Eric Raymond, open source guru


Geeks With Guns - "Discussion that oscillates back and forth between the fine points of tuning network servers and the fine points of the latest handguns." (geekswithguns.com/newsletter.html)
The Gunroom - Forum for fans of Patrick O'Brian and Age of Sail historical fiction. (www.hmssurprise.org)

Frankfurter Allgemeine [1.13.02]

THOSE WHO DON'T ASK REMAIN DUMB
The haze of ignorance still has not disappeared: Whoever wants real answers has to know what he's looking for — A poll of scientists and artists for the year 2002.

In a time when culture was still not numbered, the Count of Thüringen invited his nobles to the "Singers' War at the Wartburg," where he asked questions (if we are to believe Richard Wagner) that would bring glory, the most famous of which queried, "Could you explain to me the nature of love?" The publisher and literary agent, John Brockman, who now organizes singers' wars on the Internet, enjoys latching on to this tradition at the beginning of every year. (FAZ, January 9, 2001). His Tannhäuser may be named Steven Pinker, and his Wolfram von Eschenbach may go by Richard Dawkins, but it would do us well to trust that they and their compatriots could also turn out speculation on the count's favorite theme. Brockman's thinkers of the "Third Culture," whether they, like Dawkins, study evolutionary biology at Oxford or, like Alan Alda, portray scientists on Broadway, know no taboos. Everything is permitted, and nothing is excluded from this intellectual game. But in the end, as it takes place in its own Wartburg, reached electronically at www.edge.org, it concerns us and our unexplained and evidently inexplicable fate. In this new year Brockman himself doesn't ask, but rather once again facilitates the asking of questions. The contributions can be found from today onwards on the Internet. In conjunction with the start of the forum we are printing a selection of questions and commentary, at times in somewhat abridged form, in German translation. .... [click here]

F.A.Z. —Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 14.01.2002, Nr. 11 / Seite 38

http://www.faz.net/s/homepage.html [12.31.01]

In a time when culture was still not numbered, the Count of Thüringen invited his nobles to the "Singers' War at the Wartburg," where he asked questions (if we are to believe Richard Wagner) that would bring glory, the most famous of which queried, "Could you explain to me the nature of love?" The publisher and literary agent, John Brockman, who now organizes singers' wars on the Internet, enjoys latching on to this tradition at the beginning of every year. (FAZ, January 9, 2001). His Tannhäuser may be named Steven Pinker, and his Wolfram von Eschenbach may go by Richard Dawkins, but it would do us well to trust that they and their compatriots could also turn out speculation on the count's favorite theme. Brockman's thinkers of the "Third Culture," whether they, like Dawkins, study evolutionary biology at Oxford or, like Alan Alda, portray scientists on Broadway, know no taboos. Everything is permitted, and nothing is excluded from this intellectual game. But in the end, as it takes place in its own Wartburg, reached electronically at www.edge.org, it concerns us and our unexplained and evidently inexplicable fate. In this new year Brockman himself doesn't ask, but rather once again facilitates the asking of questions. The contributions can be found from today onwards on the Internet. In conjunction with the start of the forum we are printing a selection of questions and commentary, at times in somewhat abridged form, in German translation. .... [click here]

NewYorkMetro.com [12.31.01]

In an unlikely turn of events — and thanks to some shameless maneuvering to achieve (and protect) proximity — our Murdoch-deconstructing media columnist breaks bread with the man himself.

Rupert kept talking. He grew more expansive, more conspiratorial, even (although it did seem like he'd conspire with anyone), his commentary more intimate. We proposed that he come with us to the dinner we were scheduled to go to — John Brockman's Billionaire's dinner, a TED ritual.

Websites of the year
The Sunday Times [12.29.01]

"INSPIRED ARENA: Edge has been bringing together the world's foremost scientific thinkers since 1998, and the response to September 11 was measured and uplifting. These included the Astronomer Royal, Sir Martin Rees, who was despondent about the 21st century "because there seems no realistic chance of preventing these hazards from looming ever larger", and the former editor of Nature, Sir John Maddox: "There is no "technical fix" for terrorism." Who says that there is nothing of substance on the net?"

Read the full article →

What Now?:
New Straits Times [11.7.01]

A page featuring "serious conversation about the catastrophic events" of September 11 by intellectuals and thinkers. Trying to answer the question, 'What now?', the contributors, including such recognisable names as Richard Dawkins, Luyen Chou, David Deutsch and Yossi Vardi, weigh in often dispassionately with some highly informed, intelligent thoughts on terrorism and the fragile state of the world. The debate is lively and stimulating, and many of the exchanges are intelligent and filled with views that are argued with cool logic. It's also interesting to see how much mindful of clarity of expression intellectuals are when they're trying to appeal to a wide readership.

Read the full article →

The Scout Report [10.25.01]

What Now -- The Edge
http://www.edge.org/documents/whatnow.html
This feature from the nonprofit Edge Foundation, Inc. (reviewed previously in the July 25, 2000 Scout Report for Social Sciences & Humanities) is an impressive collection of thoughtful words in response to the recent terrorist attacks and ensuing war. The Edge postulated the question, "What now?" to its members with the idea that, as editor John Brockman explains, "within the community is invaluable expertise in many pertinent areas, not to mention the intelligence that the 'Edgies' can bring to the subjects." What separates this forum from many others dealing with recent issues of terrorism is that Brockman asks for "'hard-edge' comments, derived from empirical results or experience specific to the expertise of the contributors," rather than emotional or purely rhetorical responses. Here are a few of the pieces -- some essay length, others only a few sentences -- found here: psychiatrist Richard Rabkin takes a "strategic psychotherapy" approach to dealing with terrorism, science writer and television commentator Margaret Wertheim and archaeologist Timothy Taylor both touch on the corruption of science by weapons development as well as the intermingling of science and religion, and evolutionary scholar Richard Dawkins brings up the tendency to "bend over backwards to see the other point of view and blame ourselves for everything." Take time to peruse this collection of 44,000 words from 55 contributors and you'll be glad you did. [HCS] 
[Back to Contents]

Climate Change: Science, Strategies, and Solutions -- "Facts and Figures" [.pdf]
http://www.pewclimate.org/book/
An online sneak preview of the "Facts and Figures" section of this forthcoming book from the Pew Center for Global Climate Change (of the Pew Charitable Trusts) is now available (.pdf). The book, Climate Change: Science, Strategies, and Solutions, conveys the latest information and analyses from experts on a number of global warming issues: the scientific evidence that human activities are changing climate; present and projected impacts of climate change on agriculture, sea level, and water resources; the main determinants explaining projected costs of addressing climate change; and US and international policies and initiatives addressing global warming. The .pdf file contains visually pleasing, simply stated chapters on global and national greenhouse gas and emission levels, along with a section of conversion tables and Web links. This would be a good reference for college students taking an introductory environmental science course. [HCS] 
[Back to Contents]

The 2000 National Doctoral Program Survey
http://survey.nagps.org/
The 2000 National Doctoral Program Survey has recently been released from The National Association of Graduate-Professional Students (NAGPS), which "is dedicated to improving the quality of graduate and professional student life and education by actively promoting the interests and welfare of graduate and professional degree-seeking students." The survey represents 32,000 graduate students and recent PhDs from 1,300 different programs in the US. The site allows users to rank programs based on student assessment, look at individual program reports, and view overall results for each discipline. The nine topics covered in the survey, which range from teaching and TA preparation to overall satisfaction, are reported by letter grade based on responses and can be viewed by individual topic and individual questions within each topic. Although some programs may only have one or two responses and the NAGPS admits that "The National Doctoral Program Survey is an observational study, not a controlled experiment," the site can be beneficial for prospective students, university administrators, and faculty who hope to gain some insight into a particular university's program. [JAB] 
[Back to Contents]

US National Response Team Hazardous Materials Planning Guide 2001 Update [.pdf]
http://Itdomino1.icfconsulting.com/nrt/home.nsf/resources/Publications/$File/cleanNRT10_12.pdf
The National Response Team (NRT) is a suite of sixteen federal agencies responsible for coordinating federal planning, preparedness, and response actions related to oil discharges and hazardous substance releases. The NRT recently updated its Hazardous Materials Planning Guide, originally published in 1987, and posted it online (.pdf). The intent of this guide is to help local communities plan for hazardous materials incidents. The guide discusses how to organize a planning team, identify hazards, and write and update an emergency plan. It makes reference to legislation such the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, the Clean Air Act, and the FEMA Emergency Operations Plan. It also refers to organizations such as EPA's Chemical Emergency Preparedness and Prevention Office, the National Fire Protection Association, and the Hazardous Materials Safety Assistance Team, among others. The report includes 69 pages of text and seven appendices, among them a glossary and a directory of federal agencies. [HCS] 
[Back to Contents]

The Peacemakers Speak
http://www.thecommunity.com/crisis/
TheCommunity.com, a for-profit that has partnered with organizations including Amnesty International, Habitat for Humanity, and CARE, among others, has posted here statements from seventeen of the Nobel Peace Prize Laureates made in the weeks following September 11. Among the statements are words from David Trimble, the Dalai Lama, and a joint letter from Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu, and F.W. de Klerk. The statements are brief, and the site allows readers to respond to individual Laureates via email. The More About This Laureate link at the bottom of each page takes users to the official Nobel site information on the writer. [TK] 
[Back to Contents]

The Museum of E-Failure
http://www.disobey.com/ghostsites/
The Museum of E-Failure bears witness to the dot.bomb phenomenon, presenting the last images of the front pages of failed Websites. Steve Baldwin, who maintains the site, explains, "It is my hope that these screenshots may serve as a reminder of the glory, folly, and historically unique design sensibilities of the Web's Great Gilded Age (1995-2001)." The sites are arranged in a long list, with recent additions on the top of the page. Clicking on a site name brings up a screen shot of the site's farewell front page. A sort of virtual graveyard, the Museum of E-Failure represents a memorial on the side of the information highway. [TK] 
[Back to Contents]

Three for Halloween
2001 Halloween Guide @ PhillyBurbs.com
http://halloween.phillyburbs.com/
Halloween Pop-up Book
http://www.goldenbooks.com/fun/emagic/flash/h2k.html
Halloween 2001: Oct. 31
http://www.census.gov/Press-Release/www/2001/cb01fff14.html
Even though many children in the United States won't be trick-or-treating door-to-door this year, that's no reason to let Halloween pass unremarked. These three sites provide some holiday fun. The first, this year's Halloween Guide from PhillyBurbs.com, is a veritable omnibus of Halloween fare. Billing themselves as "the biggest and best Halloween site online," the site includes a number of features on topics such as Dracula, zombies, Ed Wood, and other spooky fare. These are the heart of the site and are geared toward adult readers with a sense of irony. The features on costumes and decorations are sometimes less rewarding, as they seem to be focused shopping guides (though some of them are pretty entertaining even so). A page on Halloween safety and a guide to local Philadelphia events round out the site. Lest kids miss out on the fun, the next site is just for them, though this scout must confess some lost time playing with this fun virtual pop-up book. The last site is from the US Census and consists of a brief page of Halloween data culled from recent Census releases. [TK]

Der Geist zu Geld macht
Focus [10.7.01]

 

What does this man say — dressed in a Panama hat and pitch-black sunglasses — as a greeting? John Brockman says: "You know, I am so bored by myself." That, one might console him, is not so bad, because the 60 year-old earns his money by being excited about others. He is considered the most successful agent for science books — and as the central figure of an industry that entices media-compatible scientists out of their laboratories and turns them into highly paid stars of pop culture. Still, his livelihood is for him "only a side-product" of his true passion: Brockman networks some of the most influential thinkers of our time. In this work, this layman has himself become one of the protagonists of science.

Just as in previous years his New York based agency, Brockman, Inc., will represent his clients this week with its own stand at the Frankfurt Book Fair. "When we hit Frankfurt, it's show time," says Brockman. "Then I put on my hat and my game face. No one needs a friendly book agent." Only the head beneath the hat will be bored with this again. Brockman long ago turned over the daily business to his wife, Katinka Matson. He conducts most of his work via the Internet from Eastover Farm, his estate in Connecticut, which was built in 1773.

 

HEAD ENOUGH
Entrusted in 1968 with the advertisement for the film "Head" by the band The Monkees, Brockman had posters printed with his likeness on them.

photo: Tobias Everke
DYNASTY OF AGENTS
Brockman's wife Katinka Matson, daughter of a successful book agent and a former actress, today manages the daily business of the Brockman, Inc. agency.

 

Hardly has a scientist made it onto the cover of The New York Times or The Wall Street Journal when Brockman is on the scene with the promise of finding a million-dollar publishing advance for a popular book. A British newspaper found its own word for this surprise tactic: "brockman" Insiders complain that half-complete, thrown-together proposals are a consequence. Another result is confused scientists, who after being overrun by Brockman can't fulfill their contracts. Such an example is Nobel Prize winner Murray Gell-Mann, who with Brockman's help is supposed to have received a contract for over one million dollars, but had to pay back the advance. The pasted-together manuscript, delivered late, had not met the expectations of the publisher. Later The Quark and the Jaguar appeared with another publisher against an advance of only $50,000. Alan Guth, who developed the theory of the inflationary universe, also had trouble completing his work, which was passed through three publishers. "But John softened all of the problems very well," praises Guth. "He was very understanding."

Archeologist Eberhard Zangger, one of the rare German clients, describes an impressive example of Brockman's effective method of agenting. "I came to the Frankfurt Book Fair with a few copies of my new book that were very expensive to produce," he remembers. Zangger had just learned that Brockman wanted to represent him. "I was overjoyed, since that was the best thing that one can achieve as an author. But then, two of my very expensive books were stolen."

Later, Zangger came by Brockman's stand to introduce himself personally, and found the agent in a sales meeting — with one of the missing copies in his hand.

 


photo: Tobias Everke
IN THE CENTER OF POWER
Brockman's office sits on a corner of elegant Fifth Avenue in theformer "Playboy Club."

Popular titles like Emotional Intelligence, which sold more than six million copies, and works by cognitive scientist Steven Pinker (How the Mind Works) or the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins (Unweaving the Rainbow) came into being through this effective "brockmaning." "But who is interested in that?" sighs Brockman. Maybe only those scientists who land record breaking advances— like physicist Brian Greene at last year's Frankfurt Book Fair.

 

 

It is surely for this reason that the brilliant string theorist, whose bestsellerThe Elegant Universe was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize, sits somewhat confused at a wooden table at Eastover Farm on an afternoon at the end of July and asks: "What are we doing here, John?"

Just as in summers past, Brockman has invited minds that don't bore him for a rustic date. Cosmologist Alan Guth has come, as well as Jordan Pollack, the inventor of robots that invent robots, and Jaron Lanier, musician and pioneer of virtual reality. "We are simply discussing how everything is changing around us," answers Brockman in flowerly prose to Greene's question. Later, at lunch, he whispers covertly, "When you don't prepare anything, you get the best results."

The sentence can serve as a motto that weaves through the iridescent life of Brockman, who as the son of a flower dealer studied business in his early twenties, only to become within a few years an investment broker, artist, celebrated marketing guru, and respected writer — in this order. "I was very un-shy in my twenties," he explains. "I met who I wanted to simply by picking up the phone?." In those days he cooked regularly with the composer John Cage and loitered about Andy Warhol's Factory. He also rented out what is possibly his greatest talent — getting intelligent types to be talked about intelligently— to entrepreneurial projects. Or to the band The Monkees, whose Film Head he publicized by having posters of his own head hung everywhere.

"There was also a time when John tried to be a serious author," remembers the Swiss book agent Peter Fritz, who has known Brockman since 1975. "But then he realized one can live better through the sales of works by other authors. And having a good income was also surely important to him." After Stephen Hawking's bestseller, explains Brockman, "I saw the gap in the market for popular books by leading researchers. I then expanded it myself."

 


photo: Nat Finklestein
IN THE FACTORY
Brockman with Andy Warhol and Bob Dylan, 1967

Stewart Brand, a close friend and one of Brockman's first clients thinks that John Brockman is "intensely curious and easily bored." In an interview with a reporter of a fashion magazine when he was just 26, Brockman explained that he refuses "to do something that I have already done before. The past is boring." In spite of this, his dynamic mind has created its own space where he will never be bored again. There he can occupy himself with those questions that "the most complex and sophisticated minds" of the world are asking themselves. So reads the motto of his website "Edge" (www.edge.org), and like much about Brockman, it proves to sound as pompous on the first look as appropriate on the second. On his invitation, an elite club of clients, friends, and friends of clients meet on the Internet and discuss whether "science kills the soul," or whether life is digital or analog. Brockman estimates that half of his working time is spent on this non-profit project.

 

In this network we see the development of a sort of Version 2.0 of the salonsin which "the most sophisticated minds" of the nineteenth century freely discussed literature. In the twenty-first, research and technology are the themes. In this format final scientific exactness remains at a distance — and with it the oppressive gravity of the research business . Nobel Prize winner Murray Gell-Mann thinks that some of the discussions are good, others not. The website contains "a considerable amount of nonsense." But one thing this playground for literate scientists seldom is: boring.

"Third Culture," — that's the name Brockman gave the growing community of scientists who leave the ivory tower to take part in the public debate — be it in the internet, in interviews, or in books. He borrowed the concept from the writer C.P. Snow and re-coined it for his purposes "as a catchy marketing term" (Brockman). In a third culture, Snow dreamed 40 years ago, the two divided cultures of the natural sciences and humanities would once again speak to one another. In Brockman's own interpretation of the concept the scientists of the Third Culture relieve those self-proclaimed intellectuals who are perversely proud not to understand the really important knowledge of our time.

While stem cells and BSE, bioethics and the believability of science occupy the media, Europe has imported the "catchy marketing term" along with its attendant ideology. Contact with the New Yorker in May of last year inspired Frank Schirrmacher, co-editor and chief of the arts and letters pages of theFrankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, to write a manifesto ("Wake-up call for Europe"). In it he complained self-critically about the European Intellectuals who are "stubbornly or clumsily avoiding the issue" of technology and science. He announced that his Arts and Letters pages would strengthen the ability of the Third Culture to be heard. In a revolutionary mood a few weeks later, he even published a page-long snippet of the newly-cracked human genetic code. Since then, not only has the FAZ Feuilleton been "brockmaned," but also the cultural debate in Germany. Brockman finds this "fully logical. All the Schirrmachers of the world are bored with their half of the two traditional cultures."

As excited as a Freshman, Brockman spends this day on Eastover Farm circling the leading representatives of his Third Culture, proposes questions, passes notes with speaking instructions around the circle and photographs everything for the website with a digital camera. "I have created a university with the best scientists in the world," he says later. "And I am its only student." In its best moments, the professors of his virtual university argue about the riddles of their disciplines — among them, what information is, or whether our universe is only a holographic projection of a higher-dimensional world. Virtual reality pope Jaron Lanier and evolutionary biologist Marc Hauser consider with all seriousness whether animals could be raised for research purposes in a completely virtual world that follows completely other natural laws. "Let's do a project together," says Lanier excitedly.

 

POSING
Poster for the symposium "After Brockman"

Brockman would like it if his thinkers would take one more step away from their ivory tower: "What would happen if the

 

members of Edge founded an advisory committee for President Bush?" he asks over coffee. The reactions in the circle range from horror to interest. "One can't leave the cloning debate or the plans for Star Wars to such people," suggests the master of the house. Politics, he says, doesn't interest him. "Just the truth."

Reality drags the Third Culture a few weeks later one further step away from the ivory tower. 6,000 people were buried in the rubble of The World Trade Center. "What now?" Brockman asks the circle on Edge. Dozens of essays crackle on the website which no scientific journal could produce. Historians assemble their research experiences with Islam, philosophers consider biological warfare, cognitive scientists discuss the power of news images. Only John Brockman composes no contribution and remains quiet.

What touches and propels him remains hidden under his Panama hat. It says so, too, in one of those Zen-inflected sentences he exchanged years ago with the artist James Lee Byars, his "closest friend." Byars wrote, "Wears his hat to deny his head."

 

(translation by Christopher Williams)

 

Copyright 2001 Focus Magazin Verlag GmbH

Original German version

Read the full article →

Pages