The Third Culture
  • Richard Dawkins

  • Stewart Brand

  • Paul Davies

  • Marc D. Hauser

  • Steven Pinker

  • Nicholas Humphrey

  • Philip W. Anderson

  • Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi

  • Lawrence M. Krauss

  • Bart Kosko

  • Clay Shirky

  • Delta Willis

  • David G. Myers

  • Judith Rich Harris

  • Robert Provine

  • Clifford Pickover

  • Howard Gardner



    For the third in a in a series of EDGE special events which began with "The World Question Center" followed by "What Is The Most Important Invention In The Past 2,000 Years," I am asking for the participation of the third culture mail list in a new project: "The Million-Dollar Science Prize."

    Let us say for purposes of this exercise that a nonprofit foundation is interested in establishing a million-dollar science prize to be given for discoveries, accomplishments, etc. that are easily and simply verified and for which no interpretation is necessary. The award process will be objective. No committees will have to decide whether or not a hurdle has been cleared.

    Perhaps the prize would be given for the discovery of a new planet, a new element, the synthesis of life in a test-tube, the first contact with extraterrestrial intelligence, or a cure for cancer. Let us also say that the million-dollar prize will be given in your name.

    What would you give it for, and why?

    I look forward to hearing from you.



    I have made the following minor suggestion:

    Let us say for purposes of this exercise that a nonprofit foundation is interested in establishing a million-dollar science prize to be given.....

    (Change :) ..... for discoveries, accomplishments, etc. that are easily and simply verified and for which no interpretation is necessary. The award process will be objective. No committees will have to decide whether or not a hurdle has been cleared.

    (To:) ..... to the first person to achieve a particular discovery or accomplishment, defined sufficiently clearly that value judgements by panels of judges will be superfluous.


    The idea and the letter is good. It does need to be defined in terms of time... Now? In the next few years? The next 10 years? The next century?

    For instance, if it was now I would award the prize to Michael West for his work on telomerase and embryonic stem cells, leading toward near-immortality in large mammals such as we.


    I'm not sure if you want me to nominate what I would give the prize for, or simply comment on the wording of the question. The problem with a goal specific prize is that if the goal is already spectacular, a million dollar prize won't be much incentive. For example, a cure for cancer would bring in a billion dollars in patents. Likewise a new spacecraft propulsion system. Most clear-cut advances would also secure the Nobel prize.

    The only goal-specific science/engineering prizes I know about are either issued for PR reasons for something that will never be achieved (e.g. the Skeptics $100,000 prize for the first clear demonstration of a repeatable paranormal phenomenon), or a sport-related activity (e.g. the man-powered flight prize).

    So a million dollar science prize could be used in the same vein. Giving it for contacting ET might spur research and thinking in this area, but in my opinion it would fall into the "paranormal" category, i.e. be unlikely ever to be collected. Choosing a fascinating but peripheral topic is another possibility. Examples might be the first nanomachine (according to some criterion), the first superconductor to work above x degrees, the discovery of the first microbe that can survive for one hour at y degrees (150C?), a proof of Golbach's conjecture in mathematics... All these are worthy challenges in their own right, but are not mainstream scientific advances. The question is, who would see value in instituting such a prize? Some years ago an oddball character named Babson founded a gravity prize. He was hoping someone would invent antigravity. Now it is awarded to worthy but dull essays on more conventional gravitational topics.

    My own choice is: award it to the first person to derive the fine structure constant to all measured decimal places from a credible physical theory.


    I am at home, sitting on my deck, looking at our new pear and apple trees, it is 70 degrees out and sunny. The million dollars prize, hmmmm?

    My own view is that the prize should be given in an area that currently lacks such prizes. Thus, for example, we should exclude topics that fall within the Nobel. I also think it should be a prize that will provide additional creative freedom, whether this be in the form of increasing time by decreasing academic responsibilities, funding for equipment, or what have you. In this sense, I very much like the spirit of the MacArthur prize. This prize is beautiful because it looks at new people on the fringe perhaps, but who have already begun to make contributions, both theoretical and empirical. I like the idea, therefore, of a million dollar prize to a young person whose work sits on the edge of several fields, is a non-traditionalist, and who could use the funds to push an idea or line of research. I for one, would love to buy my own monkey island!


    I agree with Marc — as worded, the danger is that the million-dollar prize would either never be offered, or be offered to someone who has already won the Nobel, making it pointless. A sum of money like that should really be offered to someone who would not otherwise get recognized or rewarded. One possibility is for a really good theoretician (one whose work is closely tied to empirical matters, not just a system-builder), since granting agencies, prize associations, and many universities fail to give them proper recognition. Paul Ewald, Ray Jackendoff, and Robert Trivers are the kind of people I have in mind.

    Another, and perhaps even better possibility, is to reward someone who is studying an underfunded, crucially important, and possibly short-lived topic. Examples include:

    • Human biodiversity (e.g., the human genome diversity project, getting DNA from aboriginal peoples)

    • Studies of great ape behavior in the wild

    • Moribund indigenous languages (languages are going extinct at an alarming rate)

    • Hunter-gatherer studies, before the last hunter-gatherers disappear

    • Hominid fossil-hunters

    • Germ-hunters for diseases that might be caused by pathogens that no one has ever looked for (heart disease, schizophrenia, manic-depressive disorder)

    The key thing is not to compete with, upstage, be upstaged by, or add nothing to areas and people already rewarded with big-name prizes.


    I love the idea of a new prize. In general I think "prizes" provide a great stimulus to creativity — exploiting people's deep-seated motivation to be first among their peers.

    But I have to say I think the criteria for prize-winning work that you're suggesting are far too strict. There's hardly ever been in history a revolutionary discovery that was at the time "easily and simply verified and for which no interpretation was necessary." None of the greatest theoretical leaps-forward would have qualified. Galileo, Darwin, Einstein, Freud, would all have been excluded as prize-winners.

    I'd suggest a bit of reverse engineering. Lets think whom we'd most like to see receiving the million-dollar prize, and then ask what it is about these individuals that makes them so special. In my own field, for example, Chomsky, Kauffman, Dennett, Hamilton, ... Surely no "objective, opinion-free" process could be counted to home in on these stars. Instead we ought to trust our finely-trained human judgement about where we *now believe* that truth and beauty lie.

    An alternative Nobel Prize committee is hardly what is wanted. But I don't doubt that John Brockman himself could put together a group of third culture intellectuals who would know a million-dollar scientist when they saw her or him.

    I'm all for a return to non-objective, un-democratic elitism in science. It's what makes the world ground.


    I have to be pessimistic.

    There have been a number of cases of races toward a specified goal, and more often than not the result has been extraordinarily ambiguous. A claims it but only with 3.5 sigmastatistics, while B waits to get greater accuracy — it has happened again and again in high energy physics. But also in condensed matter — flux quantisation came out a dead heat; and liquid N2 superconductivity is a wonderful mess —Mueller found a 35 degree material by absolutely pure dumb luck but the jump to 90 degrees was made independently in no less than 4 laboratories, with Chu winning by at most a few hours if that.

    Parity violation was another dead heat settled by who was closest to the journal editor; and another contender, the sainted Miss Wu, neatly finessed her collaborators out of the picture by her close relations with the theorists who happened to be Chinese.

    The other thing is that the important ideas, to my mind, are more often the answers to questions nobody yet knows how to phrase. A cure for cancer? you
    would either have to award it already or wait indefinitely — it will surely be some quite subtle concept if it ever comes. Understanding of consciousness? Minsky and Dennett think they are there already but they haven't convinced the rest of us. What would you have done about Darwin — which Darwin?

    Committees are surprisingly necessary — they make mistakes but there is very little that is that simple. And the Nobel committee has at least been at it long enough to have acknowledged some of their mistakes.

    Finally, I have one more carp — a million isn't nearly enough, these days. it would not change the lifestyle of the kind of person likely to get it.


    I'd give the prize to the discovery of the human analog to what made it possible for single cells to coexist and collaborate in a multicellular organism, or for what made it possible for termites and bees to treat the individual as an extension of the colony — but without compromising the uniqueness of the single person. There should be a way to leverage the potentialities of the brain so that no one would think of destroying another life unless all options are exhausted. Of course, there's always the possibility that such an invention would spell the end of the race — but it would be worth to go down trying.


    This is a uniformly bad idea. There are more than enough prizes. They are all arbitrary to some degree, and the prize alone generates nothing. Witness the largest prize in the world right now: The Templeton Prize. It encourages useless discussions about a silly topic. Fewer, rather than more prizes is a good idea.


    I would give the prize to the first person who produces any statement of fact that is accurate to at least one part in 10**20. Roger Penrose has observed that to date our most accurate statement of fact concerns the energy loss through gravitational waves of the Hulse-Taylor binary pulsar PST 1913 + 16 (two neutron stars that orbit each other). It is accurate to one part in 10**14. I have set the prize threshold at one part in 10**20 to account for the 10**6 dollars at stake.

    Such a prize would remind us that binary truth is not a free good even if we have often and indeed habitually assumed so. We can produce binary statements of math or logic at will: "1 + 1 = 2" and "blue is blue" are two statements true 100%. But to show that the truth of a factual statement like "e = m c**2" or "Grass is green" is 100% true would require that we get the science right to not just a large number of decimal places but to infinitely many decimal places. That is a task better left to God. Indeed a God might be just such an entity that could draw perfect circles and produce binary statements of fact.


    I would forgo having my name on the prize and would call it the "Award for Post-Cartesian Understanding". The prize would be given in 2010 for the work in that decade which does the most to advance our grasp of the relationship between information and matter. So many of the most interesting problems of our era revolve around the mysterious boundaries between the physical and conceptual worlds, so the prize could go to a geneticist working on DNA as both a chemical and an informational entity (e.g. George Williams), a cognitive neuroscientist working on the mind/brain problem (e.g. Steven Pinker), a particle physicist working on the the informatics of the sub-atomic realm (e.g Roger Penrose), or even the philoshpher who does the most to suture up Descartes mind/body split (e.g Daniel C. Dennett)


    My first choice is a prize for the missing link, not simply because the search is so tedious and under-funded, but to bring attention to the question: what separates humans from animals? Is it the larger brain, in which case we might say the missing link has already been found in the form of the proconsul skulls from the Miocene, or the much younger apish skull found by Raymond Dart. Both were proclaimed missing links; there were so many skulls held aloft for this distinction that there is John Reader's book (now a fossil itself:) Missing Links. The tradition continues with recent discoveries: leg bones from Kenya, indicating the upright gait, also used as a definition for becoming human, long toe bones that could both walk upright and grasp a branch, and now another skeleton from Ethiopia, half a million years younger than Lucy, was found alongside stone tools, yet a third definition for human superiority. I don't think humans should be separated from animals, except at certain restaurants, and the choice could inspire greater public awareness of our superiority complex.

    Now if the prize were a billion dollars, then I would go for the extraterrestrial search, because it would give even greater perspective to the arbitrary measurements of human intelligence; elephant and plenty of other species on earth are intelligent, after all. It would also be fabulous to see the different design solutions and adaptations on another planet; imagine a whole new world of plants, animals, and we gotta think, insects! But the key to both my prizes is to inspire debate about the dubious notions of human superiority. If we were half as smart as we thought we were, we wouldn't diminish the odds for other forms of intelligence, and who decides what is paranormal? If the rigors of science were applied equally to Area 51 as they should have been at the KBS site (a controversial fossil area in Kenya) the dangers are not in delving but fearing, or predicting, what you might find. Either prize would highlight what makes good science, and give a reality check to the observers.


    One idea is to award the million dollar prize, as Stewart Brand suggests, for a medical advance that offers near-immortality. But considering the ecological consequences of that . . . and recalling Tuck Everlasting's depiction of what discovering a fountain of youth might mean . . . perhaps we should instead award it for what the cold fusion hype hinted at: the discovery of a clean, limitless energy source. If such a fantasy ever were to be realized, it should be, as your ground rules state, simply and objectively verified.


    I agree with Marc Hauser and Steve Pinker that the prize should be given in an area or for a purpose that previously lacked such a prize. Big, prestigious prizes already exist in physics, chemistry, math, economics, biology, and medicine. But there is none in psychology, and there ought to be. It should be the equivalent of a Nobel Prize, and (like the Nobel) should be given for an important achievement, not (like the MacArthur awards or research grants, which are already given in psychology) for potential achievement. Both theoretical and experimental work should be eligible.

    There is no way to avoid interpretation or value judgments in awarding such a prize (or any prize), and that means — I don't see any way around it — that mistakes will be made. People who have a talent for impressing others or for gathering supporters or for doing work of a sort that is currently in vogue are more likely to be recognized. That's the way it goes. The ones who miss out will just have to console themselves with the thought that someday people may say, "What? So-and-so never got The Prize? Amazing!"

    A million dollars is plenty. The purpose of the award should be, not to change the prizewinner's lifestyle, but to recognize the achievement. It's an honor, not an early-retirement package.

    The most serious problems that face us today are psychology problems — they have to do with the way the human mind works, and with the ways in which different human minds work differently. The subject matter is complex in itself and is made more difficult by the fog of emotion that surrounds it. Psychology needs topnotch scientists. Psychology should have a major award to recognize its topnotch scientists.


    The Regeneration Prize: The regeneration of body parts of adult humans would be one of the great achievements in medical history, ranking with the discovery of antibiotics and anaesthesia. Although regeneration is often the stuff of science fiction, actual feats of regeneration are found in the embryos of many species, including humans. Adults of many species can also regrate body parts. For example, amphibians can regrow missing limbs and goldfish can reform neural connections between eye and brain. The regenerative capacity of adult humans is limited to the more modest feats of wound healing and neuronal sprouting.

    The challenge of understanding regeneration is great and requires an appreciation of both molecular mechanisms and the complex cellular ecology from which springs much developmental information. The difficulty of mastering both the molar and molecular is the main reason for the gulf between classical experimental embryology that enjoyed its golden age during the first half of this century andand its succesor, molecular biology. The two biological approaches are now coming together with the promise of great and immediate breakthroughs in developmental biology and medical science. The recent discovery of stem cells is one exciting step in this direction.

    Because of the complexity of the regeneration problem, there probably will not be a single, revolutionary breakthrough, but a series of incremental contributions. Thus, the Regeneration Prize should be awarded periodically, perhaps every two years, to the individual making the most important contribution during that interval. Although a million dollar prize may not be extrodinary recognition of a scientific achievement that may win the Nobel or have billion dollar proprietary consequences, it would bring recognition of the problem of regeneration, attract the best and brightest, and accelerate work on this great problem.


    We find that many important discoveries in science come serendipitously when curious minds are studying basic ideas not directly oriented to a particular goal. My first prize goes to a major discovery that stimulates our sense of wonder, something akin to Einstein's relativity, the discovery of cosmic background radiation or quantum-mechanical instantaneous action at a distance, or the creation of some safe drug or computer program that increases human intelligence, creativity, and spirituality. Richard Powers, author of The Gold Bug Variations, wrote, "Science is not about control. It is about cultivating a perpetual condition of wonder in the face of something that forever grows one step richer and subtler than our latest theory about it. It is about reverence, not mastery."

    In short, this prize goes to the scientist who transport us to new seas, while deepening the waters and lengthening horizons.

    I give my second prize to to the group that has the grandest accomplishment in "humanistic computing," a phrase I coined to embody computing performed selflessly to benefit humankind, such as projects to improve food distribution to the hungry, to alleviate environmental and economic problems, and to make strides in various areas of which we cannot yet think. I wish major computer companies would found a "humanistic computing department" to which they donate money. In the 21st century, computers will allow us to dream new dreams and to reason beyond our intuition. There will be no field of human experience and research that will not in some way be aided by the computer.

    I'd give the third prize to the group that sequences a trillion digits of pi. Pi has had such a rich history that this project would be quite awe-inspiring. In accomplishing this task, we may also produce new techniques to study the randomness (or technically speaking, the "normality") of pi's digits and for finding structure in the fabric of numbers, and, therefore, indirectly, the fabric of reality. Along the way, we might produce new techniques for memory storage, new algorithms, and new computer architectures that would be applicable to other problems such as in genetic sequence studies or for decoding signals from other worlds. The pi problem would force us to test many aspects of computation, such as correctness of software, reliability of hardware, reliability of storage media, new ways of sharing information across networks, and organization of a complex activity that may involve many computers and people.

    A dime from every person in New York City would accomplish this. Alternatively, you can think of this project as a million digits per dollar.


    Hi, John. Here is my description of the Howard Gardner Prize for Human Sciences, which may eventually be renamed the Howard Gardner Prize for Humane Sciences.

    This prize is awarded to the individual or individuals who make fundamental breakthroughs in our understanding of positive aspects of human potential; and/or individuals/institutions who, building on findings from the human sciences, devise, test, and evaluate approaches or programs that help to foster positive human development. Contributions may come from any science that investigates human nature or behavior, ranging from the study of neuro-transmitters to investigations of the media of communication.

    Note: Premodern or postmodern skeptics, who doubt that there is such a thing as positive human potential, or who do not believe that it is possible to enhance positive human action in a systematic way, are encouraged to become subjects in studies being carried out by future winners of the Gardner prize.