Edge in the News

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]

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
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]
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
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]
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
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
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
Halloween Pop-up Book
Halloween 2001: Oct. 31
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.


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
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
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
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.


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 →

The New York Times [8.6.01]

BETHLEHEM, Conn. —These would seem to be heady times to be a computer scientist. This is the information age, in which, we are told, biology is defined by a three-billion- letter instruction manual called the genome and human thoughts are analogous to digital bits flowing through a computer. And, we are warned, human intellect will soon be dwarfed by superintelligent machines.

"All kinds of people," said Jaron Lanier, a computer scientist and musician, "are happy to tell us what we do is the central metaphor, the best explanation of everything from biology to economics to aesthetics to child rearing, sex, you name it. It's very ego-gratifying."

Mr. Lanier is the lead scientist of the National Tele-Immersion Initiative, a virtual reality system that has been designed for the Internet.

He and six other scientists were sitting under a maple tree one recent afternoon worrying whether this headiness was justified. They found instead that they could not even agree on useful definitions of their field's most common terms, like "information" and "complexity," let alone the meaning and future of this revolution.

The other scientists were two computer science professors, Dr. David Gelernter of Yale and Dr. Jordan Pollack of Brandeis University; three physicists, Dr. Brian Greene of Columbia, Dr. Alan Guth of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Dr. Lee Smolin of the Center for Gravitational Physics and Geometry at Penn State; and a psychologist and neuroscientist, Dr. Marc Hauser of Harvard.

John Brockman, a literary agent who represents these scientists, had convened them at the country house here that he shares with his wife and partner, Katinka Matson. Mr. Brockman said he had been inspired to gather the group by a conversation with Dr. Seth Lloyd, a professor of mechanical engineering and quantum computing expert at M.I.T. Mr. Brockman recently posted Dr. Lloyd's statement on his Web site, www.edge.org: "Of course, one way of thinking about all of life and civilization," Dr. Lloyd said, "is as being about how the world registers and processes information. Certainly that's what sex is about; that's what history is about." .....

WHO KNOWS? A Meeting of The Third Culture
Frankfurter Allgemeine [7.31.01]


Plato once sought out an olive grove in which he might finally bring the world its first academy. But olive trees are rare in New England. Instead, there are strong maples, and recently, beneath a knotty, especially old and venerable specimen on Eastover Farm in Connecticut, academics fled their laboratories and lecture halls and, in the tradition of their intellectual ancestors, conversed in nature about more than their surroundings.

There were no professional philosophers, which might hardly come as a surprise since the invitation to the open-air symposium was issued by the Internet salon "Edge," whose founder, John Brockman, cultivated the Third Culture and is now busy washing away the border between the natural sciences and the humanities.

Thus, computer scientist David Gelernter of Yale brought along news that industry invests much more energy into research than universities do. The professor, who is also an entrepreneur, was already more than a little anxious, because although the Internet has just entered the race for the exchange of knowledge it might soon overtake its competition from the universities. This thesis was not contested. Jaron Lanier, who gave virtual reality its name, and Jordan Pollock, head of the Brandeis robotics program, were also in agreement that software limps behind hardware and is even losing more ground.

In the free-floating exchange of ideas, however, the scientists repeatedly put reins on wildly galloping progress. In this they distinguish themselves considerably from us mere mortals. While we might think we can distinguish between a dead and a living organism, no specialist ventures a definition of life. It was similar here. Science uncovers its fundamental lack of knowledge.

"We don't know what information is," said Lee Smolin, a physicist at Pennsylvania State University, and none of the collected authorities on information could explain it to him. Brian Greene, who teaches mathematics and physics at Columbia University and writes bestsellers about "string theory," sat and smiled at how perplexing the concepts of space and time are: "We don't know what it is." Evolutionary psychologist Marc D. Hauser, who traveled from Harvard, took up the riddle of the brain, a part of the human body that compels us with the illusion that we know more than what is actually true. He thanked Noam Chomsky not least of all for this insight. As cosmologist Alan Guth of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology explained, maybe the assertions of quantum mechanics also manifest themselves in this way, as they describe the cosmos in possibilities. Where should there still be room for certainties? Guth spoke of dark energy, which composes sixty percent of all of the energy in the universe, but "We don't know what it is."

They know more, these scientists, than their predecessors ever knew. But in the end, when they add their knowledge together, they are quite Socratic in their realization that they know that they know nothing. Today, when every day witnesses a new discovery, the keys to the primary causes and the fundamental laws of the universe are still missing. The maple tree, under which the scientists speculated in green Connecticut, is little more than a tree of limited knowledge. In this sense, the virtual cybersalon committed no faux pas as it spent a summer afternoon reconstructing itself in the real shadow of the maple tree in order to consider who we are, how we live, and - above all - how we will live in the future. Was this temporary change in the conditions of aggregation, after all, also a sign of what the roundtable demonstrated as the apparent instability of our revolutionary times? Who knows.

Read the full article →

nymag.com [4.22.01]

John Brockman, the literary agent and technology gadfly, formally surveyed a high flying group of his digerati associates recently on the question of what's next — and absolutely no one responded.

LA WEEKLY: New World Disorder [2.7.01]

Edge (www.edge.org) features a cross section of elite scientists, including evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, parallel computing pioneer Danny Hillis, language theorist and cognitive scientist Stephen Pinker, robotics expert Rodney Brook, chaos theory expert Doyne Farmer, and physicists Paul Davies, Freeman Dyson and Lee Smolin. .... "We are interested in ‘thinking smart,'" declares Brockman on the site, "we are not interested in the anesthesiology of ‘wisdom.'" Putting the question "What now?" to his invite-only list, Brockman stressed that he wanted not more punditry, but "hard-edged comments, derived from empirical results."

3 Sat Online [2.7.01]

Who explains the world to us? Priests, psychoanalysts, and other prophets no longer serve this purpose. The sciences are becoming more important, especially biology and physics. Most recently the map of the human genome was revealed, and our knowledge of the world has become immense. But who can see through it all?

Ten years ago a New York literary agent promoted popular science, accessible science for everyone, as an alternative to arcane, discipline-specific language and an unenlightened intellectual climate. John Brockman promotes a Third Culture: "The Third Culture is a name for those people who, through empirical work in the natural sciences - as well as in other subjects, such as feminism, architecture, etc. - transform our thinking about who and what we are. This is very different from other thinkers, whom we call the Second Culture, who construct pyramids of thought, dispense opinions, and spy on the opinions of others."

How did the cosmos and our own world come into being? What does is mean to be human? What does our future look like? Within disciplines such as genomics, computer science, robotics and artificial intelligence the authors of the Third Culture look for new answers to the great, perennial questions. Neither the scientific method nor animated speculation are excluded from this. Brockman, however, expects no help from classical intellectuals and literary types: "The fact that someone is a gifted writer no longer means that his ideas are any better than those of my butcher. To put it bluntly, it really doesn't matter to me what literary people have to say about these themes. This isn't to say that I'm disinterested, but it doesn't mean anything to me that someone has written 30 books on philosophy."

Although Brockman's polemic has caught on, it doesn't reach far enough. The fission of uranium and plutonium nuclei is surely a scientific achievement of the past century, but at the same time it has made possible the most horrifying weapons of destruction of all time. How, then, are we to reckon with nuclear fission? Scientific answers to moral questions don't help. But Brockman, whose polemic is directed more towards the narrow mindedness of the lions of intellectual salons than artists, knows this as well, because it was artists like John Cage who made him aware of the natural sciences. His critique goes for the conditions in America as well, where despite the New York Times there is no widely publicized forum for the popular dissemination of knowledge about scientific progress. Brockman's Third Culture seeks to close this gap: "If you want to know about the most recent developments in psychology and computer science, that is, to be among the most important thinkers, then you have to buy their books. You can't get that from the newspapers, because it's not published there."

Through this attempt to create a counterweight to the entertainment industry, he has become the most successful literary agent specializing in nonfiction in the world. He negotiates advances in the millions of dollars for authors such as Marvin Minsky, Richard Dawkins, or Stephen Pinker. In the meantime, he has created a network of authors from which Frank Schirrmacher, who has committed the FAZ arts pages to the sciences, has also profited. The Third Culture has reached Germany: "Today it really is self-evident." says Brockman. "It is good that it is now a topic of debate in Germany. It hasn't been the case for long, but things really have changed. Frank Schirrmacher deserves the credit for this. But here in America it is no longer a big issue. It is a part of our everyday culture."

Popular science and the Third Culture have established themselves in America. They are not a replacement for either hard science or the humanities. But they are a platform for a creative, unconventional, and interdisciplinary thought. For this reason they can't be done without.

The Aventis Magazine [1.31.01]

John Brockman wants to be at the frontier of knowledge. That’s why his online magazine is called Edge (www.edge.org): “What questions shall we ask today?”

The New York Times [1.8.01]

Once a year, John Brockman of New York, a writer and literary agent who represents many scientists, poses a question in his online journal, The Edge, and invites the thousand or so people on his mailing list to answer it.

At the end of 1998, for example, he asked readers to name the most important invention in 2,000 years; the question generated 117 responses as diverse as hay and birth control pills. This year, Mr. Brockman offered a question about questions: "What questions have disappeared, and why?"

Here are edited excerpts from some of the answers, to be posted today at www.edge.org.....

John D. Barrow, THE NEW YORK TIMES [1.8.01]

Once a year, John Brockman of New York, a writer and literary agent who represents many scientists, poses a question in his online journal, The Edge, and invites the thousand or so people on his mailing list to answer it.

At the end of 1998, for example, he asked readers to name the most important invention in 2,000 years; the question generated 117 responses as diverse as hay and birth control pills. This year, Mr. Brockman offered a question about questions: "What questions have disappeared, and why?"

Here are edited excerpts from some of the answers, to be posted today at www.edge.org.....