Edge in the News

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 

Read the full article →

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  

Read the full article →

Andrian Kreye, Suddeutsche Zeitung [1.13.03]

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...and conducts its most important debating club on his internet platform, Edge (http://www.edge.org).

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]

Andrian Kreye, Suddeutsche Zeitung [1.13.03]

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...and conducts its most important debating club on his internet platform, Edge (http://www.edge.org).

Slashdot [1.12.03]

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." 

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?...

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

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]

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