That question was presented on Thanksgiving Day to Nobel laureates and other heavy thinkers by New York author and literary agent John Brockman. Brockman, who presides over an eclectic gathering of scientists and science buffs, started publishing the answers this week on the group's Web site. More than 100 participants have taken the bait so far, and their answers are as varied, and in some cases as strange, as the participants themselves.....This is not a group that accepts limitations gladly. Some fudged on the dates. Some eschewed the notion of an invention as some sort of gadget, opting instead for such things as the development of the scientific method, mathematics or some religions.
One of the Net's most prestigious, invitation-only free-trade zones for the exchange of potent ideas is opening its doors. A little. .....Starting Thursday, two or three selected dialogs a month at Edge -- founded in 1996 by author and literary agent John Brockman -- will be open for public reading and discussion in a special area on Feed.
Here's a millennial question: What was the most important invention of the past 2,000 years? John Brockman, über-agent for science and technology authors, posed the question to his online community of scientists and scholars and posted the provocative and cantankerous list of responses on his EDGEWeb site.
Some nominations were obvious: the printing press, the contraceptive pill, the atomic bomb and the computer all received multiple votes. Suggestions ranged from the concrete (the battery, the steam engine, hay) to the abstract (calculus, quantum theory, evolution, double-entry accounting); from the world-historical (religion, the city, democracy) to the quirkily mundane (the eraser, reading glasses, plumbing); and from the physiological (anesthesia, DNA sequencing, aspirin) to the philosophical (the scientific method, "the idea of an idea").
The list makes for an enjoyable read -- if you can get over the participants' utter inability to remain within the question's 2000-year bounds. Suggesting that the most important invention of this era is the spirit of rebellion against arbitrary rules.
This special feature marks the first collaboration between FEED and Edge, John Brockman's invitation-only Internet forum, where hundreds of the world's leading scientists and thinkers share their thoughts on issues ranging from the meaning of numbers to genetics to affirmative action. We'll be excerpting two or three articles a month from Edge, and creating special Loop discussions where our readers can add their own observations to Edge's challenging and adventuresome debate. Our first installment is a series of answers to the question, "What was the most important invention of the past two thousand years?" The contributors include Freeman Dyson, Richard Dawkins, and Joseph Traub. Readers can visit the Edge site for even more nominations, and can post their own suggestions in the Loop.
John Brockman is the premier literary agent of the digerati, so when he asked 1,000 scientists and other techno-thinkers to suggest the most important invention of the past 2,000 years, the responses sounded a lot like proposals for yet another millennial book.
John Brockman is the premier literary agent of the digerati, so when he asked 1,000 scientists and other techno-thinkers to suggest the most important invention of the past 2,000 years, the responses sounded a lot like proposals for yet another millennial book.
This is going to be an incredible year. If there's anything we needed to get done before the new millennium, this is the last minute, there's no time to wait.
But I expect we'll also do a lot of looking backward. We've started discussing who the person of the millennium is, and this morning I came across a group of thinkers who are discussing the most important invention of the last two millennia.
A summary of nominations. Calculus, hay, anesthesia, computers, the Internet, antibiotics, contraceptives, the spectroscope, the telescope, the theory of evolution, the steam engine, Gˆdel's Incompleteness Theorem, the Hindu-Arabic number system, the scientific method, the printing press, the atom bomb, soap, reading glasses, the human ego.
But wait, there's more! Clocks, television, discovery of the unconscious, awareness of the universe, commercialization of electricity, secularism, the eraser, telecommunications, education, automobiles, the symphony orchestra, board games, double-entry accounting, the Gatling gun, the mirror, the number zero, sewers, probability theory, democracy, the airplane.
Congratulations to John Brockman and the people at edge.org. This is an incredible source of new thoughts. I highly recommend it to DaveNet readers.
Here are some of the things I hope to work on this year.
Mainly, I want to create a cross-platform writing environment that has the best features of the desktop and the Internet. I want to be able to jot a note on my website using a palmtop computer, and I want to write stories and specs from a laptop, and I want to install server software on machines running behind the more prevalent high-bandwidth fulltime net connected computers and popular desktop OSes such as Windows and Mac.
I see a bandwidth gap that needs software to fill it. The interface between web writing tools and web storage is still very low-level and cumbersome. We're going to challenge the assumption that web writing requires technical expertise. We want to deliver tools to the technical types and designers to create inverse portals for writers, places for ideas to appear and then develop, to flow in from all areas and flow out to all interested readers.
Further, we've noticed that the web has two primary interfaces: Time and Searching. I can't find another that works as well as either of these two. So we're integrating, assuming, verticalizing. When you can make assumptions, as a software designer, you can simplify. And that's what the web needs, simplification. And that's what we can deliver.
I also hope for a more adult Internet. Sites like www.edge.org show what can be done when there's moderation and thoughtfulness and a little bit of editing. We can learn from each other. The world is not filled with bullshit. There are interesting new ideas, and new perspectives on old ideas.
But it takes calm thoughtful expression to get ideas heard. That's the number one item on my to-do list for the web for 1999, to help more of that to happen, and to support it when it does.
Congratulations to John Brockman and the people at edge.org. This is an incredible source of new thoughts. I highly recommend it to DaveNet readers.....Sites like www.edge.org show what can be done when there's moderation and thoughtfulness and a little bit of editing. We can learn from each other. The world is not filled with bullshit. There are interesting new ideas, and new perspectives on old ideas
Edge (http://www.edge.org) is his "digital salon" in which Mr Brockman stimulates on-line discussions and debate among scientists, science writers and the "digerati", writers who discourse on digital technologies.
"Some of the most memorable conversations I've had over the years are concerned with invention, including technological innovations as well as conceptual realisations," said Brockman.
Nobel laureate Prof. Philip Anderson, philosopher Daniel C. Dennett, biologist Prof Richard Dawkins and Sir John Maddox are among the 100 or so contributors who have nominated inventions randing from tha atomic bomb and board games to the Internet, Hindu-Arabic number system and anaethesia.
They say "Edge Foundation, Inc., was established in 1988 as an outgrowth of a group known as The Reality Club. Its informal membership includes of some of the most interesting minds in the world.", and they're NOT kidding. Outstanding presentations of dialogues, articles, and a virtual certainty that the person behind the words can and does THINK. Highly Recommended.
No, the Net is not a cesspool of mindless guttertalk. There are some intellectual gems such as EDGE, a Website that offers the vulgum pecus a peek into an invitation-only mailing list whose contributors include some of the brightest minds in science and technology: Microsoft visionary Nathan Myhrvold (yes, Bill is a participant too,) MIT psychology professor Steven Pinker and neurologist Oliver Sacks, ofAwakenings fame. Though philosophically high-powered, the discussions are surprisingly non-technical: Recent exchanges dealt with the nature of numbers, and the blend of genetics, archaeology and language. (S.E.)
"List publishing is not merely information delivered to your mailbox, it's the devolution of mass media into the hands of everyday people. And its growing faster than the web."
by David S. Bennehum
Some list owners don't care about selling ads or subscriptions, and they don't value volume, either. For them, their lists are about density - a tightly packed nucleus of powerful people. These A-lists are impossible to join unless you have clout in some way. That's because A-lists derive their power from the social network with which they connect. If you're not in that network in real life, you can't get in online, either.
A-lists derive power from the social network to which they connect you. As in the real world, it's strictly invitation-only.
A-lists exist all over the world. Usually they're private - the board of directors of a corporation might be on a list, or the clients of a particularly successful consultant. Whatever the membership, A-lists reinforce the feeling of inclusion. It's one of the perks of success.
"People are asked to join the list," John Brockman says of his Èlite EDGE list, which goes out by email to around 1,000 members two or three times a month. "It started as an outgrowth of what I call 'Third Culture intellectuals.'" Brockman de_defines Third Culture intellectuals as "people who are doing empirical work and writing books about it, as opposed to people dealing with opinions. These are people who are creating and changing the world." Brockman, the literary agent known for a client list thick with scientists, pundits, and philosophers, likes to de_define his clientele as a clique that also happens to be changing the world. His EDGE list is an outgrowth of years of tireless networking that began when he ran The Expanded Cinema Festival at Filmmakers Cinematheque in New York in 1965 at the age of 24.
EDGE allows networking among this Èlite, some of whom were identi_identified as the digerati in Brockman's book by the same title. The list has a simple format: a single member is either interviewed by Brockman or asked to write an essay. For instance, Stanislas Dehaene wrote an essay on numbers and the brain, which in turn was critiqued by EDGE members George Lakoff, Marc D. Hauser, and Jaron Lanier. It's a brilliant format, partly because of who's on the list - Richard Dawkins, Freeman Dyson, David Gelernter, Nathan Myhrvold, and Naomi Wolf, to name a few. And since Brockman's business is brokering book deals, it's an outstanding means to stay on patterns of thought. If an idea hot enough to be a book emerges on EDGE, Brockman has first-mover advantage.
"The Model is creating reputation," says economist Hal Varian. "Lists are about relative status."
This isn't Brockman's primary motive, however. "The purpose is to create - to arrive at an axiology of the world's knowledge. Get the brightest people in the world in the room and have them ask the questions they are asking themselves. They get to try out ideas on a group of peers who are not in their own discipline. They get to be tested and challenged. It's very vigorous - and very entertaining." The public is permitted to view archives of EDGE on Brockman's Web site (www.edge.org/), which, in turn, allows him to ventilate some of the ideas in the public sphere. But Brockman's list would collapse were the hoi polloi allowed in. It's unlikely that people like Nathan Myhrvold have the time or interest to listen to just anyone with email. The moment EDGE moves away from being the A-list, it collapses and becomes a B-list, otherwise known as a chat room.
Scientists and technologists-often deplored, sometimes feared, frequently on the fringes of society-have become hip.
They grace the covers of news magazines, their frequently arcane research is the stuff of bestsellers, and one of the members of their clan has become the richest man in America.
Even the motion picture industry has caught on. Historically, movies have tended to portray scientists as a tad mad. But such films as "Contact" show that scientists can be, well, almost like normal people. Of course, that film was based on a novel written by a scientist, the late Carl Sagan.
This evolution in the perception of scientists has come about largely because science and technology play an increasingly important role in all our lives.
Instant global communications and television coverage have shrunk the world. A kid with a desktop computer can create new images and new tools-maybe even break into computer systems that keep track of everything from our bank accounts to national security projects. There seems to be an electronic gadget to meet every need.
We all have what we need now to do some science ourselves, ranging from computers to digital imaging to direct access via e-mail to scientists and their institutions.
And that has led to the emergence of something new in our society.
Borrowing a phrase coined by science historian C.P. Snow, literary agent and science author John Brockman calls it the "third culture.
"In the past, culture has been defined as art and music. When we have those, we have culture. When we don't, we don't.
But Brockman argues that technology has brought science into our lives in such a dramatic way that a third culture has emerged.
In 1981, Brockman founded the Reality Club, an assortment of movers and shakers from the world of science who traditionally meet in Chinese restaurants and artists' lofts around New York City to ponder the great imponderables of the day. In the most common expression of the third culture, a year ago Brockman started a Web site (http://www.edge.org) to give scientists a forum in which to share their thoughts and their questions with the world at large.
He says the site addresses the motto of the Reality Club: "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.
"Much of the discussion on the site centers on the emergence of this new, global culture. Some of the material is written specifically for the site, but some of it, including an essay by Kevin Kelly, executive editor of Wired magazine, first appeared elsewhere.
"This new third culture is an offspring of science," writes Kelly in a piece originally published in the Feb. 13 issue of Science. "It's a pop culture based in technology, for technology. Call it nerd culture.
"The computer revolution brought science into our lives as never before, and for the Nintendo generation, technology became their culture.
And somewhere along the way, Kelly argues, a "funny thing happened: Nerds became cool.
"But nerds are not interested in science per se, Kelly argues. The third culture is interested in results, particularly innovation.
"Its thrust is not pursuing truth, but pursuing novelty," Kelly writes. " 'New,' 'improved,' 'different' are key attributes for this technological culture.
"Yet oddly enough, some of the scientific arenas that are most in vogue these days have little to do with novelty or even a tangible payback to society. No one really needs to know the nature of a black hole, for instance, but astronomy is one of the hottest buttons in science.
Nerds may be hip, but they are the toolmakers. They are beholden to science because science fuels their revolution. But it is the tools that fascinate them the most, not the science.
Technology may be the pathway to the third culture, but some scientists are hip these days despite the fact that they may never have written software or created a new gadget. They are hip because they are addressing questions that spring from the roots of intellectual curiosity.
Stephen Hawking, whose writings about astrophysics triggered much of the current interest in science, is an intellectual innovator, not a creator of computer games and novelties.
Yet Hawking could fill an auditorium in seconds with people eager to learn what he has to say about the dynamics of the cosmos.
Ironically, his crippling disease has left him capable of speaking only through a computer-driven technological innovation. Does that make him a product or a guru of the third culture?
Scientists have frequently been on a roller coaster when it comes to public perception. Their image plummeted with fears growing out of the nuclear age and rose with humans landing on the moon. But it may remain at a high level for many years to come. It is rooted in a broad segment of society that is, in varying degrees, directly engaged in science. Despite the powerful new astronomical observatories springing up around the world, for example, most comets are still discovered by amateurs with backyard telescopes.
And the meteoric rise of Microsoft was driven by Bill Gates, who dropped out of Harvard and created the most powerful software company in the world.
Yet despite all that, my hunch is that more kids could name a dozen movie stars or sports heroes than a couple of scientists.
That is partly because many still feel intimidated by science, and scientific success frequently goes unnoticed."
Since 1937, the United States has anointed a national poet laureate but never a science laureate," Kelly points out.
Maybe the time is ripe to change that, now that scientists are hip. If that ever happens, we may not need to worry about those science scores anymore.
Kids will see just how cool it can be to be a nerd.
Chronicler of the digerati, John Brockman, handpicked the best of breed at last week's Monterey TED(technology, entertainment, design) conference to attend his yearly soir?e, where technology's philosopher-kings mused on all things Internet, multimedia and business.
"Science" is a lofty term. The word suggests a process of uncommon rationality, inspired observation, and near-saintly tolerance for failure. More often than not, that's what we get from science. The term "science" also entails people aiming high. Science has traditionally accepted the smartest students, the most committed and self-sacrificing researchers, and the cleanest money--that is, money with the fewest political strings attached. In both theory and practice, science in this century has been perceived as a noble endeavor.
Yet science has always been a bit outside society's inner circle. The cultural center of Western civilization has pivoted around the arts, with science orbiting at a safe distance. When we say "culture," we think of books, music, or painting. Since 1937 the United States has anointed a national poet laureate but never a scientist laureate. Popular opinion has held that our era will be remembered for great art, such as jazz. Therefore, musicians are esteemed. Novelists are hip. Film directors are cool. Scientists, on the other hand, are ...nerds.
How ironic, then, that while science sat in the cultural backseat, its steady output of wonderful products--radio, TV, and computer chips--furiously bred a pop culture based on the arts. The more science succeeded in creating an intensely mediated environment, the more it receded culturally.
The only reason to drag up this old rivalry between the two cultures is that recently something surprising happened: A third culture emerged. It's hard to pinpoint exactly when it happened, but it's clear that computers had a lot to do with it. What's not clear yet is what this new culture means to the original two.
This new third culture is an offspring of science. It's a pop culture based in technology, for technology. Call it nerd culture. For the last two decades, as technology supersaturated our cultural environment, the gravity of technology simply became too hard to ignore. For this current generation of Nintendo kids, their technology is their culture. When they reached the point (as every generation of youth does) of creating the current fads, the next funny thing happened: Nerds became cool.
Nerds now grace the cover of Time and Newsweek. They are heroes in movies and Man of the Year. Indeed, more people wanna be Bill Gates than wanna be Bill Clinton. Publishers have discovered that cool nerds and cool science can sell magazines to a jaded and weary audience. Sometimes it seems as if technology itself is the star, as it is in many special-effects movies. There's jargon, too. Cultural centers radiate new language; technology is a supernova of slang and idioms swelling the English language. Nerds have contributed so many new words--most originating in science--that dictionaries can't track them fast enough.
This cultural realignment is more than the wisp of fashion, and it is more than a mere celebration of engineering. How is it different? The purpose of science is to pursue the truth of the universe. Likewise, the aim of the arts is to express the human condition. (Yes, there's plenty of overlap.) Nerd culture strays from both of these. While nerd culture deeply honors the rigor of the scientific method, its thrust is not pursuing truth, but pursuing novelty. "New," "improved," "different" are key attributes for this technological culture. At the same time, while nerd culture acknowledges the starting point of the human condition, its hope is not expression, but experience. For the new culture, a trip into virtual reality is far more significant than remembering Proust.
Outlined in the same broad strokes, we can say that the purpose of nerdism, then, is to create novelties as a means to truth and experience. In the third culture, the way to settle the question of how the mind works is to build a working mind. Scientists would measure and test a mind; artists would contemplate and abstract it. Nerds would manufacture one. Creation, rather than creativity, is the preferred mode of action. One would expect to see frenzied, messianic attempts to make stuff, to have creation race ahead of understanding, and this we see already. In the emerging nerd culture a question is framed so that the answer will usually be a new technology.
The third culture creates new tools faster than new theories, because tools lead to novel discoveries quicker than theories do. The third culture has little respect for scientific credentials because while credentials may imply greater understanding, they don't imply greater innovation. The third culture will favor the irrational if it brings options and possibilities, because new experiences trump rational proof.
If this sounds like the worst of pop science, in many ways it is. But it is also worth noting how deeply traditional science swirls through this breed. A lot of first-class peer-reviewed science supports nerdism. The term "third culture" was first coined by science historian C. P. Snow. Snow originated the concept of dueling cultures in his famous book, The Two Cultures.1 But in an overlooked second edition to the book published in 1964, he introduced the notion of a "third culture." Snow imagined a culture where literary intellectuals conversed directly with scientists. This never really happened. John Brockman, a literary agent to many bright scientists, resurrected and amended Snow's term. Brockman's third culture meant a streetwise science culture, one where working scientists communicated directly with lay people, and the lay challenged them back. This was a peerage culture, a peerage that network technology encouraged.
But the most striking aspect of this new culture was its immediacy. "Unlike previous intellectual pursuits," Brockman writes, "the achievements of the third culture are not the marginal disputes of a quarrelsome mandarin class: They will affect the lives of everybody on the planet."2 Technology is simply more relevant than footnotes.
There are other reasons why technology has seized control of the culture. First, the complexity of off-the-shelf discount computers has reached a point where we can ask interesting questions such as: What is reality? What is life? What is consciousness? and get answers we've never heard before. These questions, of course, are the same ones that natural philosophers and scientists of the first two cultures have been asking for centuries. Nerds get new answers to these ancient and compelling questions not by rehashing Plato or by carefully setting up controlled experiments but by trying to create an artificial reality, an artificial life, an artificial consciousness--and then plunging themselves into it.
Despite the cartoon rendition I've just sketched, the nerd way is a third way of doing science. Classical science is a conversation between theory and experiment. A scientist can start at either end--with theory or experiment--but progress usually demands the union of both a theory to make sense of the experiments and data to verify the theory. Technological novelties such as computer models are neither here nor there. A really good dynamic computer model--of the global atmosphere, for example--is like a theory that throws off data, or data with a built-in theory. It's easy to see why such technological worlds are regarded with such wariness by science--they seem corrupted coming and going. But in fact, these models yield a third kind of truth, an experiential synthesis--a parallel existence, so to speak. A few years ago when Tom Ray, a biologist turned nerd, created a digital habitat in a small computer and then loosed simple digital organisms in it to procreate, mutate, and evolve, he was no longer merely modeling evolution or collecting data. Instead, Ray had created a wholly new and novel example of real evolution. That's nerd science. As models and networked simulations take on further complexity and presence, their role in science will likewise expand and the influence of their nerd creators increase.
Not the least because technological novelty is readily accessible to everyone. Any motivated 19-year-old can buy a PC that is fast enough to create something we have not seen before. The nerds who lovingly rendered the virtual dinosaurs in the movie Jurassic Park, by creating a complete muscle-clad skeleton moving beneath virtual skin, discovered a few things about dinosaur locomotion and visualized dinosaurs in motion in a way no paleontologist had done before. It is this easy, noncertified expertise and the unbelievably cheap access to increasingly powerful technology that is also driving nerd science.
Thomas Edison, the founder of Science magazine, was a nerd if ever there was one. Edison--lacking any formal degree, hankering to make his own tools, and possessing a "just do it" attitude--fits the profile of a nerd. Edison held brave, if not cranky, theories, yet nothing was as valuable to him as a working "demo" of an invention. He commonly stayed up all night to hack together contraptions, powered by grand entrepreneurial visions (another hallmark of nerds), yet he didn't shirk from doing systematic scientific research. One feels certain that Edison would have been at home with computers and the Web and all the other techno-paraphernalia now crowding the labs of science.
Techno-culture is not just an American phenomenon, either. The third culture is as international as science. As large numbers of the world's population move into the global middle class, they share the ingredients needed for the third culture: science in schools; access to cheap, hi-tech goods; media saturation; and most important, familiarity with other nerds and nerd culture. I've met Polish nerds, Indian nerds, Norwegian nerds, and Brazilian nerds. Not one of them would have thought of themselves as "scientists." Yet each of them was actively engaged in the systematic discovery of our universe.
As nerds flourish, science may still not get the respect it deserves. But clearly, classical science will have to thrive in order for the third culture to thrive, since technology is so derivative of the scientific process. The question I would like to posit is: If the culture of technology should dominate our era, how do we pay attention to science? For although science may feed technology, technology is steadily changing how we do science, how we think of science, and what it means to be a scientist. Tools have always done this, but in the last few decades our tools have taken over. The status of the technologist is ascending because for now, and for the foreseeable future, we have more to learn from making new tools than we do from making new concepts or new measurements.
As the eminent physicist Freeman Dyson points out, "The effect of concept-driven revolution is to explain old things in new ways. The effect of tool-driven revolution is to discover new things that have to be explained" (p. 50 ).3 We are solidly in the tool-making era of endlessly creating new things to explain.
While science and art generate truth and beauty, technology generates opportunities: new things to explain; new ways of expression; new media of communications; and, if we are honest, new forms of destruction. Indeed, raw opportunity may be the only thing of lasting value that technology provides us. It's not going to solve our social ills, or bring meaning to our lives. For those, we need the other two cultures. What it does bring us--and this is sufficient--are possibilities.
Technology now has its own culture, the third culture, the possibility culture, the culture of nerds--a culture that is starting to go global and mainstream simultaneously. The culture of science, so long in the shadow of the culture of art, now has another orientation to contend with, one grown from its own rib. It remains to be seen how the lofty, noble endeavor of science deals with the rogue vernacular of technology, but for the moment, the nerds of the third culture are rising.
Some undergraduates at Harvard University are reading the e-mail messages of world-renowned scientists and cultural thinkers this semester as part of an introductory science course.
The people behind the e-mail messages are contributors to Edge, a group of intellectuals who use the Internet to discuss the social implications of science and technology. The use of the e-mail in the Harvard class is an experiment to test whether their exchanges can be integrated into college courses.
Anyone on the Internet can get a taste of the Edge discussions by visiting the group's World-Wide Web site. The Harvard students, however, are subscribers to the group's e-mail newsletter, which is distributed every few weeks and contains e-mail messages, essays, and queries from Edge contributors.
"The idea is to bring students up to speed on the latest thoughts" of top scientists, says Marc D. Hauser, an anthropology professor at Harvard and an Edge contributor. He subscribed his students to the newsletter as part of " Human Behavioral Biology," a course he teaches with another anthropology professor, Irven DeVore.
Using Edge material seemed ideal, Dr. Hauser says, because of the range of topics that members of the group discuss. A few weeks ago, for example, the newsletter featured a talk with Patti Maes, an artificial-life researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Media Lab. Other contributors have included Richard Dawkins, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Oxford who wrote Climbing Mount Improbable (W.W. Norton, 1996), and Steven Pinker, an M.I.T. psychologist and the author of How the Mind Works (Norton, 1997).
John Brockman, a prolific author and literary agent for scores of writers on science and technology, founded Edge after he wrote The Third Culture: Beyond the Scientific Revolution (Simon & Schuster, 1995). The book argues that today's intellectual luminaries are "scientists and other thinkers" who are "rendering visible the deeper meanings of our lives." He decided to open an e-mail salon for those "Third Culture" thinkers, people who, in his estimation, bridge the worlds of literary theorists and traditional scientists.
Mr. Brockman says he has wanted to expose college students to the group's e-mail messages for some time. He has dubbed the concept "Edge University," and hopes that if the Harvard experiment works, professors from around the world will come on board. "E-mail lays bare what people working in these areas really think."
The Harvard biology course enrolls about 500 undergraduates, who each week attend lectures as a whole and then meet in groups of 20 for discussions. When the Edge e-mail messages relate to course readings or lectures, they are integrated into those discussions. Because the course is introductory and interdisciplinary, Dr. Hauser expects Edge's exchanges to intersect often with what students are learning in class.
Already, Dr. Hauser says, after mentioning the Edge discussions in one of his lectures, "I hear students in the coffee shops yapping away. It is very exciting."
Dr. Hauser acknowledges that he could simply direct his students to the Web site each week, but he says the students respond better to the immediacy of e-mail. And, he argues, a thread of e-mail messages is more likely to be read as a discussion than is the drier, impersonal content of a book. As he puts it, "E-mail lays bare what people working in these areas really think." Soon, Dr. Hauser hopes, the students will be asking Edge contributors about material they have posted.
"E-mail lays bare what people working in these areas really think."
Creating that level of interaction with the members, however, will get tricky. Mr. Brockman, Edge's founder, keeps distractions on the newsletter to a minimum by filtering out irrelevant messages from subscribers before he distributes them. So instead of posting messages directly to subscribers of the Edge newsletter, the students will send their questions to Dr. Hauser and his research assistants, who will compile and forward them to Mr. Brockman. Mr. Brockman will then ask contributors for responses, which will be relayed back to the students through Dr. Hauser.
If Edge University catches on at other colleges, Mr. Brockman envisions operating it through a network of participating professors, who would forward the Edge newsletter to their students. He also says that a parallel e-mail discussion list could be created to allow students around the world to debate issues raised in the newsletters.
In e-mail messages that Mr. Brockman has posted on the Web site, Edge contributors have praised the idea of reaching out to students.
"The Edge material potentially plugs an important intellectual hole," wrote David Gelernter, a computer scientist at Yale University who is known for his critiques of technology's influence on society. Understanding the implications of science and technology "is a tremendously important topic ... universities know it, students want to study it," he continued. But, he added, "universities in general don't have a clue about how to teach it."
Also see: An excerpt from John Brockman's 1995 book, The Third Culture 6/16/95
Copyright 1998, The Chronicle of Higher Education. Posted with permission on EDGE. This article may not be published, reposted, or redistributed without permission from The Chronicle.
LISA GUERNSEY writes about information technology for The Chronicle and manages its on-line information technology section.
Big, deep and ambitious questions — questions that suggest that science is finally edging into the domain of philosophy and religion.....breathtaking in scope. Keep watching The World Question Center.
An extraordinary Web site.