Was the light bulb more important than the pill? An online gathering of scientists nominates the most important inventions of the past 2,000 years. Some of their choices might surprise you.
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Interview by David Alpern
The answer to life and the universe? Well, that depends on the question The new year is traditionally a time for the imperative. I will lose five kilos; control my temper better; learn the bassoon; enhance my homepage with Java; whatever. This year, why not take a break and shift to the interrogative instead. Don't resolve. Question. Don't focus on what you're not doing, but look at what you don't know. Ask yourself a few questions to which you would really like answers. They can be questions about anything in the world ó one of the advantages of questions over resolutions is that you don't have to limit them to the personal. That said, though, the questions will be personal too; what you want to know says a lot about you. This suggestion is inspired by a parlour game on the world wide web. Edge (http://www.edge.org) is a sort of salon run by John Brockman, a literary agent and writer who went a long way towards cornering the market in scientist-writers during the post-Stephen Hawking science-writing boom. For the past year it has been home to often lively, sometimes obscure and almost always ambitious discussions about emerging insights into the sciences and the new digital world. It is a sort of ongoing digital Start the Week, with more nuts and bolts and less Melvyn Bragg.
For Edge's first anniversary, Brockman asked everyone who contributes ó an in-crowd of his clients, various other scientists and science writers and a selection of the "digerati", by which is meant people who discourse on new communication technologies with some sort of authority ó to send him the question that mattered most to them. For anyone with an interest in what science and technology have to offer humanity the result is provocative, not only in the questions this reasonably influential bunch is asking itself, but also in those it passes over.
Many of the questions are firmly centred in the questioner's own research, sometimes so much so that they seem reasonably obscure to anyone outside the discipline involved. Steven Pinker, author of How the mind works, asks a question about one detail of that working: "How does the brain represent the meaning of a sentence". Alan Guth, the man who dreamt up the notion of cosmic inflation as an explanation for the evenness, and much of the bigness, of the Big Bang, asks how we can know which sorts of universe are more probable than others.
Some of these insider questions are incisive. Richard Dawkins cuts to the heart of his own work by asking "What might a second specimen of the phenomenon that we call life look like?" Like geology, biology is a one-off science: there is only one Earth, and all life on it is one family, with a common ancestor. Only by studying other lifes elsewhere can we come to understand how much of life is necessarily the way that it is and how much is just the way things are on Earth. Life forms elsewhere may be hard to find, but probably easier to make sense of than Guth's alternative universes.
Various Edgies asked after these aliens, wondering whether we would recognise them if we found them (good question) and what they would mean for established religion. Others wondered if we might not build them ourselves. A range of questions, mostly asked by people who work in the catch-all field of "complexity", effectively ask what is special about arrangements of matter that are capable of agency, and can we create new ones, possibly using computers?
An allied question, and possibly the most interesting of the bunch, comes from William Calvin, a theoretical neurophysiologist (and an amateur climatologist too, but that's another story). "How will minds expand, once we understand how the brain makes mind?" Part of this question's strength is in its breadth. You can treat the question as being about psychoactive drugs, or computer enhancements, or new teaching techniques, or whatever you like. But it is equally impressive in its scope.
Consider an analogue from history. Before we understood how cells make proteins, we could not make any of them ourselves, and had to make do with those nature provided. Now we do understand. We use designer proteins for many medical purposes ó and will soon use them for a vast range of technological and agricultural ends. If we can understand how brains produce thinking, the increase in possibilities might be just as large, and far more personal. Asking us to think about how we use those new possibilities asks us about our moral and social worlds as well as our physical and intellectual areas of interest.
In bridging this gap between intellect and right action, Calvin achieves something that most of the Edgies do not. Some of them ask questions about science; others ask about its implications, and more generally about how to better the world. Very few found a question that covered both. It is not clear whether those posing the pure science questions actually value those questions more than they do political and social questions, or whether they just, rather realistically, accept that while their view on what matters in science is interesting their wider views might be less so. But it is clear that the questions about how to better the world were asked from an intriguing set of perspectives.
Anyone who thinks that scientists and their fellow travellers are uninterested in religion will be in for a surprise. While there are no questions about God and some negativity about organised religion ó David Gelernter, computer scientist, cultural critic and Unabomber victim asks "When will the nation's leading intellectuals come clean and admit that Biblical doctrine (on women, nature, homosexuality, the absolute nature of moral truth and lots of other topics) makes them cringe and they are henceforth not Jews and not Christians, and the hell with old time religion?" ó there is quite a lot about the need for new spiritual values.
Some of these questions are more overtly religious than others, but the plaintive requests for a more long term approach to the world and its resources, like Stewart Brand's "How do we make long-term thinking automatic and common instead of difficult and rare?" seem much of a piece with the more overtly spiritual, if rather instrumentalist, question posed by Colin Tudge, one of Britain's best science writers: "Can we devise a religion for the 21st century and beyond that is plausible and yet avoids banality ó one that people see the need for? What would it be like?" And the cosmologists often sound religious anyway; John Barrow, professor of astronomy at the University of Sussex, asks: "Is the Universe a great mechanism, a great computation, a great symmetry, a great accident, or a great thought?"
But while they acknowledge the spiritual, these seekers after truth ignore many more earthly and more pressing problems. No one asks how to cure cancer, or how many Brits are going to die of mad cow disease. No questions bear directly on the development of the Third World, or on gender equality, or on poverty. Some questions doubtless have such concerns at their heart, but they tend to be phrased in rather universalist, abstract language. There are social concerns here, but they are largely couched in terms of individuals and biological; have we evolved to be prejudiced, or murderous, or capable of only some sorts of intellectual endeavour?
It should not be surprising that 100 intellectuals discoursing on a website end up a little detached from the real world. But that detachment underscores what some of the questioners were asking themselves: how do we get science to do good? As yet, we do not know. Science, at this sort of level, is still very much an intellectual and personal set of questions, not a social one. We are quite good at getting science-based technology to make money, but we are a long way from understanding how to make it responsive to people's desires, needs and goals.
The question posed by Steven Rose, professor of biology at the Open University, is: "How to ensure that we develop sciences and technologies that serve the people, are open to democratic scrutiny and which assist rather than hinder humans to live harmoniously with the rest of nature". It is a specialist's way of asking one of the best questions of all: how can I make things better, not just for myself, but for everything and everyone? If that is not the question you are asking yourself for the new year, what is?
At his Web site, called Edge, John Brockman, a literary agent for many scientists and an author himself, tries to achieve what he calls "electronic discourse at the highest level" with people of "the third culture" -- scientists and other researchers who, he says, "are taking the place of the traditional intellectual in rendering visible the deeper meaning of our lives, redefining who and what we are."
To mark the first anniversary of the site, Brockman posed a question: "Simply reading the six million volumes in the Widener Library does not necessarily lead to a complex and subtle mind," he wrote, referring to the Harvard library. "How to avoid the anesthesiology of wisdom?" He answered the question with other questions -- by inviting participants to submit "the question you are asking yourself." Here are some of their queries. They and others are now available at Edge.
A few months ago, a group of authors gathered at a country house in Connecticut for a weekend, taking walks in the meadows and woods, dining alfresco and talking about their work. They did not, however, discuss movie rights, the fate of the novel or the current rash of memoirs. They talked about multiple universes, the philosophy of mathematics and the nature of consciousness.
This was a pastoral salon in which cosmologists, cognitive scientists, linguists and invertebrate paleontologists could discuss the evolution of the the universe and the problem of whether 1 plus 1 equals 2 is a tautology, a logical formula with relevance only to itself, or whether it has a necessary connection with the physical world. It was a meeting at which the authors could consider the question of whether there are questions that are unanswerable, in principle.
All the authors are scientists, and all except one are clients of their host, John Brockman, the literary agent whose house they were visiting and who presided over the occasion with his wife and business partner, Katinka Matson. Brockman, of Brockman Inc., with a penthouse office in Manhattan just off Fifth Avenue, may have more scientists as clients than any other literary agent. The Independent newspaper in England recently paid him the backhanded compliment of turning his name into a verb, suggesting that there are telltale signs when a scientist is "Brockmaned," one of them being a six-figure advance. His client list reads like a university's interdepartmental committee on evolution, computer science, consciousness and the fate of the cosmos.
At the gathering in Connecticut, for instance, were Steven Pinker ("How the Mind Wor ks"), Lee Smolin ("The Life of the Cosmos"), Daniel Dennett ("Consciousness Explain ed"), Alan Guth ("The Inflationary Universe"), Nicholas Humphrey ("A History of the Mind"), Niles Eldredge ("Reinventing Darwin," "Dominion") and Frank Sulloway ("Freud," "Biologist of the Mind"), who is not a client, at least not yet.
Brockman also represents journalists, a number of them employees ofThe New York Times. But it is as an agent of scientists that Brockman has made his mark. He is known for striking quickly and treating publishers as adversaries in a contest for money. He sells foreign rights to books himself, rather than letting publishers reap those profits, and prides himself on working a global market.
He sold the just published "How the Mind Works" to W.W. Norton for $500,000 to $600,000, said an editor who was involved in the auction for the book but did not buy it. And he just struck a deal for another book by Dr. Pinker for a larger sum, the author said. "Ten years ago," Brockman said, scientists writing for a popular audience "would go to Basic Books or MIT Press and get paid a modest advance and give up world rights." Today, they may think about $1 million.
"Scientists are getting what celebrities got 10 years ago -- well, actually, they're getting as much as celebrities in many cases," Brockman added.
And why not, he asks. "To me," he said, "the people that I work with are the glamorous people. They're the beautiful people. Is there something wrong with an evolutionary biologist being paid as much as a rock star?"
Editors and other agents who deal with Brockman or compete with him, complain, off the record, about quickie book proposals, overblown advances and books that do not come in on time or in good shape.
Unlike most agents, he submits proposals to a number of publishers at the same time, rather than dealing with them one at a time. "He's always looking for huge money," one editor said, and he does not wait for the scientists to decide that it is time to review their careers and write for the ages. He recruits professors who have received good press for their work the way another agent might recruit actors or quarterbacks.
Acting as a book packager, something between an agent and a publisher, he created a Science Masters series of short, reader-friendly books by scientists like Pinker and Dennett and others who are not clients, like the paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould. He has sold the rights for this series worldwide.
Popular books about science have always been around. But an editor at Free Press (owned by Simon & Schuster) who has bought a number of books through Brockman, Susan Arellano, said, "I don't think they had the visibility that John has given them." He has raised the size of advances for books about science to a new level, she said, and Brockman agrees. "I had something to do with that," he said.
Of course, Brockman does not create the books. Jonathan Segal, an editor at Knopf, said that "there are a lot of good books out there in science," and that they are out there because of scientists' research and writing. And Segal pointed out that no one had to participate in a Brockman auction. "It's not John making us bid, it's us," he said.
Brockman says much the same. "It's the people writing the books that matter," he said. "The publishers that will fall all over me to buy book A won't take my calls for book B." In his characteristic conversational mix, stirring business, philosophy and a big name together in the same elliptical breath, he continued: "What I'm saying is the concreteness, in the Whitehead sense, lives with the manuscript and the author. It's not the agent, believe me." That's Alfred North Whitehead, by the way, the English mathematician and philosopher who wrote "Principia Mathematica" with Bertrand Russell. "I'm only as strong as the book I'm representing at that moment," he said, then paused. "Well, to some degree."
Brockman, 56, did not begin with books. After getting his MBA from Columbia University, he moved almost immediately into Manhattan's downtown art world as an orchestrator of the avant-garde. In the 1960s, he put on multimedia events. He worked with Andy Warhol. He worked in Hollywood. And he wrote books himself, essays in which he reflected on subjects like cybernetics, the comparative study of brains and computer systems. His first was called By the Late John Brockman (Macmillan). By his account, he has now written, edited or been a co-author of about 18 books.
He started his literary agency in 1973 and, in the early 80s, had a flurry of success selling computer software and computer books. One of his first big books was "The Whole Earth Software Catalog," sold to Doubleday for $1.3 million. The computer world is still, in some sense, his home. He lives on e-mail and has just set up a Web site, accessed only with passwords, on which he posts proposals for books he is selling. He need only call a publisher or send e-mail to let an editor read a proposal immediately, with no printing or mailing costs for Brockman Inc.
One of the books Brockman wrote caused him a great deal of grief. It was titled "Einstein, Gertrude Stein, Wittgenstein & Frankenstein,"and he had to tell Viking to pull it off the market in 1986 after James Gleick, then a reporter for The New York Times, noticed that sections of it strongly resembled an article he had written for The New York Times Magazine. This was a particularly serious crisis for a literary agent, whose livelihood is the word as property. The book was already in stores.
It was the worst moment of his life, Brockman said, acknowledging that there were sections in his book that should have been attributed to Gleick. He said the mistake had been made by a young assistant to whom he had farmed out some of the books' chapters to finish.
He has continued to write and edit and to organize intellectual salons, both live and virtual. The first was The Reality Club, which he started with the late Heinz Pagels, a physicist, as a way for researchers from different disciplines to get together and talk about their work. He now has a site on the World Wide Web for such discussions, with many of his clients and others talking about cosmology, consciousness and computer science. Reviews of the site are mixed. Murray Gell-Mann, a Nobel laureate in physics and another Brockman client, said that some of the discussion was good, some not. It contains, he said, "a considerable amount of nonsense."
The selling of Gell-Mann's book "The Quark and the Jaguar" has brought Brockman criticism. His handling of that book was excoriated in an article in The New Republic as typical of his approach to selling science books. Brockman was reported to have sold the book to Bantam for $550,000 and topped $1 million with foreign rights.
But Gell-Mann had great trouble writing the book and went through several collaborators, finally turning in a partial manuscript that Bantam rejected. Brockman then resold the book to W.H. Freeman for $50,000. Gell-Mann had to return his advance from Bantam, but he said in an interview that he was happy with Brockman as an agent. "I made a lot of money on the book," Gell-Mann said.
Alan Guth is another scientist and Brockman client who had a book, "The Inflationary Universe," that ran into problems. After an initial burst of enthusiasm and a hefty advance, Guth went through three publishers before his book saw print. He does not blame Brockman, although he does say, sounding bemused rather than resentful, "I would almost go so far as to say he tricked me into writing the book."
In January 1991, Guth related, one of those times when the Big Bang theory was being called into question and his work on an expanding universe was receiving attention, a front-page interview with him appeared in The Wall Street Journal. He received a good deal of publicity elsewhere as well.
Brockman seized the moment. He called Guth and told him that he could get a big advance if Guth would agree to write a book. Guth agreed, and Brockman sold the book to Bantam for $250,000. But Guth said the pressure of other work and his own perfectionism had slowed his progress. "The Inflationary Universe" was finally published by Addison-Wesley (the third of Guth's publishers) for considerably less than Bantam had agreed to pay.
Of course, some Brockman clients publish their books with no trouble, or even with high flying success. And, as he and book editors also point out, it is an agent's job to get large advances for his clients. Both Gell-Mann, who had a world of trouble with his book, and Pinker, for whom all is going smoothly, say they have been quite satisfied with him as an agent.
Brockman thinks of himself not only as a deal-maker, but as a writer and a traveler in the world of ideas. What draws him to his work, he said, is "the idea of exalting ideas." Perhaps the best description of Brockman's relationship to science and scientists is that he is a fan, the sort who knows the ins and outs of the game, the hot subjects, the players, the coaches, the statistics and, of course, the salaries, bonuses and intricacies of free agentry. He is a fan who knows the game so well that he has been able to make it his business.
Being able to work with people he admires, promote important ideas, and, along the way, "make a fine living for myself" makes it, Brockman said, "the best of all possible worlds." He added: "What can I say? It's a great life."
Imagine being transported back in time to 19th-century London, to the Anchor Tavern. The Royal Society, a gathering of "science enthusiasts," is meeting there, over a sumptuous spread of cod's head, mutton, pigeon pie, plum pudding, butter, and cheese, washed down with bumpers of dark porter. You listen and perhaps even participate in discussions with some of the leading minds of the day, debating cutting-edge topics like Charles Darwin's theories of natural selection, Lord Kelvin's research into thermoelectricity, and Charles Lyell's views on uniformitarianism.
Today, "big science" generally takes place in cloistered sanctums that are off-limits to noninitiates. At a site called Edge, however, something of the spirit of the Royal Society (though, sadly, without the victuals and drink) is being revived.
There you can eavesdrop on a shifting cast of science luminaries, including evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, MIT mathematician Marvin Minsky, Nobel-winning physicist Murray Gell-Mann, philosopher Daniel Dennett, and psychologist Steven Pinker. The style is decidedly "after hours," as these brainy folk improvise new ideas like jazz musicians testing their chops, competing, collaborating, and sometimes pontificating within the site's freewheeling text-only forums. Every day, Edge offers an intellectual jam on topics like the origin of racism and the place of emotions in cognitive science.
Brockman, a writer and literary agent himself, believes that the best scientific work ranks as high as any other endeavor in the great achievements of the human mind.
"Responses to this year's question are deliciously creative... the variety astonishes. Edge continues to launch intellectual skyrockets of stunning brilliance. Nobody in the world is doing what Edge is doing."
L'Espill calls for the "Third Culture"
Humanities and the third culture
Francisco Fernández Buey
The contents of Catalan journal L'Espill, a new Eurozine partner, fulfil philosopher Fernández Buey's wish for a crossover between the sciences and the humanities – the project known as the "Third Culture". "Humanists need scientific culture to overcome reactionary attitudes based exclusively on literary tradition," writes Buey. "Nor is there any doubt that scientists need a humanist training [...] in order to overcome the old scientism that still tends to consider human progress as a simple derivative of scientific-technical progress."
..."If we want to do anything serious in favour of a rational and reasoned resolution of some of the great controversial socio-cultural and ethical-political issues in societies such as ours, in which the techno-scientific complex has got an essential weight, there is no doubt that humanists will need scientific culture to overcome reactive attitudes which are based exclusively on literary traditions. And we should add, as some of the great contemporary scientists used to do, that there is neither any doubt that scientists and technologists will need humanistic training (that is to say, historical-philosophical, methodological, literary, historical-artistic, and so on) in order to overcome the old scientism and its positivist roots, which still tends to consider human progress as a simple derivation of the scientific-technical progress. This is the real reason by which, in the last decades, and from different perspectives, sensitive scientists and engaged humanists are giving so much importance to the investigation of what could be a third culture."
It was the humanities scholars who prepared the ground for the advance of science in the public mind. In the seventies, when public intellectuals were still following the stars of enlightenment, emancipation and social justice, Jean-Francois Lyotard came along and gave them a dire message: one cannot believe in these stories any longer. The philosopher named the new phase "postmodernism". But no society can live without a meaningful interpretation of their lives. This is where the third culture of engineers, physicists and evolution biologists comes in — as presented on edge.org — showing the public how our world and its interpretation is being changed by their work.