Conversations

Intellectual Enzyme

[6.9.14]

[ED. NOTE: The legendary curator Hans Ulrich Obrist (known a "HUO"), Co-Director of Exhibitions and Programmes at London's Serpentine Gallery. Since 2009, he has been ranked  #1 #2 #2, #10, and #5 in Art Review's "Power 100", a ranked list of the contemporary artword's most powerful figures. A long-time Edge collaborator, we have been interviewing each other for fifteen years. Below, he talks to me in Munich. In the next Edge edition, I bring my camera to The Serpentine Gallery in London and return the favor. —JB]


INTELLECTUAL ENZYME


Teamwork, from left: John Brockman, Andy Warhol and Bob Dylan in 1966 in the New York Factory (Photo: Nat Finkelstein) Click to expand.
 
The idea of the autonomy of art has led to the fact that even today it amounts to a breach of taboo if one wants to bring art and artists into dialogue with other disciplines such as technology, science or politics. One person who never had any time for such a separation is John Brockman. He is a writer, literary agent, curator, worked in business, and for the White House in Washington. He sees it as his main role to bring experts from the most different disciplines down from their ivory towers so that they can converse not only with their peers but also with the wider public and with the luminaries of other subjects.

Stewart Brand, author of the legendary Whole Earth Catalog and the forerunner of the ecological movement, has called Brockman “an intellectual enzyme”, bringing the thoughts, visions and knowledge of the most different people together and catalysing them. Prototypical of this idea are his Edge Foundation and its website, edge.org, a platform for the exchange of ideas among the intellectual elite. Prototypical of this, too, was the collaboration between artists such as Nam June Paik, Andy Warhol or Robert Rauschenberg in 1965 in New York that led to an invitation by MIT whereby biophysicists, cyberneticists, musicians, painters and theatre directors held an interdisciplinary symposium.

Finally Brockman has also proved his own talent for synthesis as a writer. In his first book By The Late John Brockman, he considers the world through the lens of information theory, in 37 through Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle and in Afterwords as a verbal construct. Above all, his first work was a magnificent combination, not just in content but also in form, of philosophy and experimental literature, which he presented in 1968 in a six-part reading of the book in the New Yorker Poetry Center. Each page of the book contained only one paragraph, composed of citations from the likes of Ludwig Wittgenstein or Samuel Beckett. The very? process of reading is supposed to create a performance, freely after Marcel Duchamp’s dictum that an artist makes the material available but that it is up to the observer or reader to make an artwork out of it.

A new edition of By The Late John Brockman, 37 and Afterwords will be published this September by Harper Collins Publishers in the US and UK under the title By The Late John Brockman, and in Germany by S. Fischer under the title Nachworte: Gedanken des Wegbereiters der Dritten Kultur.

HANS ULRICH OBRIST is curator and co-director of the Serpentine Galleries in London. His most recent book is Ways of Curating.

Real Scenarios That Keep Scientists Up At Night

[5.31.14]


@

Edge @ World Science Festival: REAL SCENARIOS THAT KEEP SCIENTISTS UP AT NIGHT
Date: Saturday May 31, 2014
Time: 11:00 AM – 12:30 PM
Venue: NYU Kimmel Center
Register Now

Science and Story Café: Meet the Authors

What should we be worried about? That is the question John Brockman, founding editor of the celebrated science website Edge, posed in 2013 to our planet’s most influential minds. Five leading scientists share their worries and discuss their own recent books.

Host:
JOHN BROCKMAN
Editor, Edge.org; Chairman of Brockman, Inc.; Author, By the Late John Brockman, The Third Culture

Featuring:
HELEN FISHER
Biological Anthropologist, Rutgers University; Author, Why Him? Why Her?: How to Find and Keep Lasting Love
AMANDA GEFTER
Consultant, New Scientist; Founding Editor, "CultureLab"; Author, Trespassing on Einstein’s Lawn: A Father, a Daughter, the Meaning of Nothing, and the Beginning of Everything
SETH LLOYD
Professor of Quantum Mechanical Engineering, MIT; Author, Programming the Universe: A Quantum Computer Scientist Takes on the Cosmos
STEVEN PINKER
Johnstone Family Professor, Department of Psychology; Harvard University; Author, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined
MAX TEGMARK
Physicist, MIT; Researcher, Precision Cosmology; Scientific Director, Foundational Questions Institute; Author, Our Mathematical Universe: My Quest for the Ultimate Nature of Reality

[Ed. Note: The 2014 World Science Festival takes place May 28-June 2 in New York City. Under the leadership of cofounders Tracy DayEmmy Award-winning journalist,  and Brian Greene, a physicist and author of The Elegant Universe the Festival, founded in 2008, has evolved into a deep and rich city-wide intellectual feast, available to all. Highly recommended. Don't miss it! For information, schedule and tickets, click here. —JB]

 

“Reads like an atlas of fear.”
—New York Times

“Substantial and engrossing.  . . .Brockman and the Edge contributors offer fresh and invaluable perspectives on crucial aspects of our lives.”
Booklist (starred review)

"The most stimulating English-language reading to be had from anywhere in the world." 
—The Canberra Times

“This collection helps us see the myriad possible concerns laid out before us, articulating the various elements of fear that we need to fear.”
—Washington Post

"An awakening read in its entirety."
—Maria Popova, Brain Pickings

 

The Way We Live Our Lives in Stories

[7.28.14]

We think of stories as a wildly creative art form but within that creativity and that diversity there is a lot of conformity. Stories are very predictable. No matter where you go in the world, no matter how different people seem, no matter how hard their lives are, people tell stories, universally, and universally the stories are more or less like ours: the same basic human obsessions, and the same basic structure. The structure comes down to: stories have a character, the character has a predicament or a problem—they're always problem-focused—and the character tries to solve the problem. In its most basic terms, that's what a story is—a problem solution narrative. 

JONATHAN GOTTSCHALL is a Distinguished Research Fellow in the English Department at Washington & Jefferson College. He is the author or editor of six books, including The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human (a New York Times Editor’s Choice Selection and a finalist for the LA Times Book Prize). Jonathan Gottschall's Edge Bio Page


THE WAY WE LIVE OUR LIVES IN STORIES

There's a big question about what it is that makes people people. What is it that most sets our species apart from every other species? That's the debate that I've been involved in lately.

When we call the species homo sapiens that's an argument in the debate. It's an argument that it is our sapience, our wisdom, our intelligence, or our big brains that most sets our species apart. Other scientists, other philosophers have pointed out that, no, a lot of the time we're really not behaving all that rationally and reasonably. It's our upright posture that sets us apart, or it's our opposable thumb that allows us to do this incredible tool use, or it's our cultural sophistication, or it's the sophistication of language, and so on and so forth. I'm not arguing against any of those things, I’m just arguing that one thing of equal stature has typically been left off of this list, and that’s the way that people live their lives inside stories.

#1 AT AMAZON: SCIENCE & MATH

[5.2.14]

For the second year in a row, the 2012 Edge Annual Question book, This Explains Everything: 150 Deep Beautiful, And Elegant Theories Of How The World Works —HarperCollins, 2013—(http://amzn.to/1hkdL2y), has made the main Amazon Bestseller list (all titles, fiction & nonfiction). Last year it was #8; and in April it re-appeared at #23 on the overall list and #1 on Amazon's Best Sellers in Science & Math. 

And it continues. The recently published book on the 2013 Q: What *Should* We Be Worried About: Real Scenarios That Keep Scientists Awake At Night (http://amzn.to/OlfJbC), hit #3 on the Los Angeles Times nonfiction paperback list and also made appearences on the NPR and IndieBound lists. And if the stream of global press about Edge is a reliable indicator, the series, and the Edge website itself, is now a global phenomenon. 

Next: We have just delivered the manuscript for What Scientific Ideas Should Be Retired? to our international publishers. To date, editions are in the works in the following languages: English (US/UK markets), German, Dutch, Korean, Croatian, Spanish (World), Japanese, Chinese, Romanian, and Russian.  —JB

 

TULIP 2014

[5.2.14]

"TULIP 2014"

Copyright © 2014 Katinka Matson. All rights reserved. 
katinkamatson.com
"Imagine a painter who could, like Vermeer, capture the quality of light that a camera can, but with the color of paints. . . .  She is at the forefront of a new wave in photography.". —Kevin Kelly, Executive Editor, Wired
 
"As the moving lens slides along the surface of one of Matson's tulips, it is able to view the flower from all sides; her floral pictures are so intense that looking at them, you almost get the feeling that you are able to peer around the flowers themselves." —The New York Times Magazine 
 
KATINKA MATSON is Edge cofounder and resident artist.
 

ON KAHNEMAN

[3.27.14]

Introduction

On the occasion of Daniel Kahneman's 80th birthday on March 5, 2014, Edge celebrated with a reprise of a number of his contributions to our pages. (See Edge Master Class 2007, "A Short Course in Thinking About Thinking";  Edge Master Class 2008, "A Short Course in Behavioral Economics"; Kahneman's talk on "The Marvels and Flaws of Intuitive Thinking" at the Edge Master Class 2011, "The Science of Human Nature."

In the first Edge Master Class, "Thinking About Thinking"  (2007), Kahneman was the teacher and the students were the founders and architects of Microsoft, Amazon, Google, PayPal, and Facebook, i.e. the individuals responsible for rewriting our global culture. Why did Jeff Bezos (Amazon), Larry Page (Google), Sergey Brin (Google), Nathan Myhrvold (Microsoft), Sean Parker (Facebook), Elon Musk (Space X, Tesla), Evan Williams (Twitter), Jimmy Wales (Wikipedia), among others, travel to Napa that year, and again in 2008, to listen to Kahneman? Because all kinds of things are new. Entirely new economic structures and pathways have come into existence in the past few years: New ideas in psychology, cognitive science, behavioral economics, law, and medicine that take a new look at risk, decision-making, and other aspects of human judgment.

"Danny Kahneman is simply the most distinguished living psychologist in the world, bar none," writes Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert. "Trying to say something smart about Danny's contributions to science is like trying to say something smart about water: It is everywhere, in everything, and a world without it would be a world unimaginably different than this one."

"It's not an exaggeration to say that Kahneman is one of the most influential psychologists in history and certainly the most important psychologist alive today," adds Harvard research psychologist Steven Pinker. "He has made seminal contributions over a wide range of fields including social psychology, cognitive science, reasoning and thinking, and behavioral economics, a field he and his partner Amos Tversky invented."

His longtime colleague, (and co-teacher of the 2008 Edge Master Class, behavioral economist Richard Thaler, suggested that Edge follow up the birthday announcement by doing what it does best—asking Edgies who work in fields including, but not limited to, psychology, cognitive science, behavioral economics, law, and medicine a question.

For their responses to Thaler's question—"How has Kahneman's work influenced your own? What step did it make possible?"—we asked a select group of Edgeis to include inspired leaps off of Kahneman's shoulders, not just applications of his ideas. We used a comment made by Steven Pinker in the Q&A following Kahneman's talk at the 2011 Edge Master Class, as an example. Pinker said:

If somebody were to ask me what are the most important contributions to human life from psychology, I would identify this work [by Kahneman & Tversky] as maybe number one, and certainly in the top two or three. In fact, I would identify the work on reasoning as one of the most important things that we've learned about anywhere. When we were trying to identify what any educated person should know in the entire expanse of knowledge, I argued unsuccessfully that the work on human cognition and probabilistic reason should be up there as one of the first things any educated person should know.

One way to consider the long and illustrious career of a great thinker such as Kahneman is not as a summation, but as a commission, one that gives us permission to move forward in certain ways. (Think Newton's "If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.") As social psychologist Richard Nisbett noted, "It's not just a celebration of Danny. It's a celebration of behavioral science."

— John Brockman

The World Mind That Came In From The Counter Culture

John Brockman: A Portrait
[1.10.14]

10.01.2014 • Be imaginative, exciting, compelling, inspiring: That's what John Brockman Expects of himself and others. Arguably, the planet's most important literary agent Brockman brings its cyber elite together in his Internet salon "Edge." We paid a visit to the man from the Third Culture.

At the age of three John Brockman announced: "I want to go to New York!" For decades he has been a leading light behind the scenes in the city's intellectual life.  Foto wowe

DELAYED GRATIFICATION HURTS CLIMATE CHANGE COOPERATION

A Conversation with
[11.4.13]

Introduction

Interesting news this week from Nature Climate Change which published a study by Jennifer Jacquet (Edge's Roving Editor!) and her colleagues at two Max Planck Institutes, Kristin Hagel, Christoph Hauert, Jochem Marotzke, Torsten Röhl and Manfred Milinski. The study, designed by Jacquet, who is Clinical Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies at NYU sparked global press coverage which included articles in Time, Der Spiegel, and a 5-minute segment on Fareed Zakaria's GPS national news program on CNN on "Why in the world can't the world get consensus on climate change?" Harvard psycholgist Steven Pinker noted that the paper is "an insightful analysis of why it's so hard to come to grips with climate change." Special thanks to Rory Hawlett, Chief Editor of Nature Climate Change for opening the paywall for one month—until the end of November—to allow public access to the paper. And a tip of the hat to Nature Editor-in-Chief and Edge contributor, Philip Campbell for his continued interest and support.

John Brockman
    Editor

JENNIFER JACQUET is Clinical Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies, NYU, researching shame, cooperation and the tragedy of the commons. She is also Edge's Roving Editor (see interviews with Adam Alter and Joseph Heinrich).

Jennifer Jacquet's Edge bio page 

THE REALITY CLUB: Freeman Dyson, Lee Smolin


WHAT IN THE WORLD: A CLIMATE CHANGE GAME
Why in the world can't the world get consensus on climate change? Fareed Zakaria takes a look at a new study.


DELAYED GRATIFICATION HURTS CLIMATE CHANGE COOPERATION

[JENNIFER JACQUET:] My colleagues from UBC, the Max-Planck-Institute for Evolutionary Biology, and the Max-Planck-Institute for Meteorology, and I published a study this week in Nature Climate Change where we show that when the rewards of cooperation are delayed, cooperation significantly declines. We used a 6-player collective risk game—a variant on the threshold public-goods experiment, which requires a minimal investment into the common pool (in our case 120 Euros) for the public good to be provided (in our case, an additional 45 Euros each). No single player is capable of ensuring the group's success, and a majority of players who donate nothing guarantees that the target cannot be met. As an environmental scientist interested in large-scale social dilemmas, like overfishing and climate change, this set-up is perfect to explore some of the nuances of cooperation.

THE THIRD CULTURE

[9.9.91]

 

The third culture consists of those scientists and other thinkers in the empirical world who, through their work and expository writing, are taking the place of the traditional intellectual in rendering visible the deeper meanings of our lives, redefining who and what we are.

In the past few years, the playing field of American intellectual life has shifted, and the traditional intellectual has become increasingly marginalized. A 1950s education in Freud, Marx, and modernism is not a sufficient qualification for a thinking person in the 1990s. Indeed, the traditional American intellectuals are, in a sense, increasingly reactionary, and quite often proudly (and perversely) ignorant of many of the truly significant intellectual accomplishments of our time. Their culture, which dismisses science, is often nonempirical. It uses its own jargon and washes its own laundry. It is chiefly characterized by comment on comments, the swelling spiral of commentary eventually reaching the point where the real world gets lost.

In 1959 C.P. Snow published a book titled The Two Cultures. On the one hand, there were the literary intellectuals; on the other, the scientists. He noted with incredulity that during the 1930s the literary intellectuals, while no one was looking, took to referring to themselves as "the intellectuals," as though there were no others. This new definition by the "men of letters" excluded scientists such as the astronomer Edwin Hubble, the mathematician John von Neumann, the cyberneticist Norbert Wiener, and the physicists Albert Einstein, Niels Bohr, and Werner Heisenberg.

How did the literary intellectuals get away with it? First, people in the sciences did not make an effective case for the implications of their work. Second, while many eminent scientists, notably Arthur Eddington and James Jeans, also wrote books for a general audience, their works were ignored by the self-proclaimed intellectuals, and the value and importance of the ideas presented remained invisible as an intellectual activity, because science was not a subject for the reigning journals and magazines.

In a second edition of The Two Cultures, published in 1963, Snow added a new essay, "The Two Cultures: A Second Look," in which he optimistically suggested that a new culture, a "third culture," would emerge and close the communications gap between the literary intellectuals and the scientists. In Snow's third culture, the literary intellectuals would be on speaking terms with the scientists. Although I borrow Snow's phrase, it does not describe the third culture he predicted. Literary intellectuals are not communicating with scientists. Scientists are communicating directly with the general public. Traditional intellectual media played a vertical game: journalists wrote up and professors wrote down. Today, third-culture thinkers tend to avoid the middleman and endeavor to express their deepest thoughts in a manner accessible to the intelligent reading public.

The recent publishing successes of serious science books have surprised only the old-style intellectuals. Their view is that these books are anomalies--that they are bought but not read. I disagree. The emergence of this third-culture activity is evidence that many people have a great intellectual hunger for new and important ideas and are willing to make the effort to educate themselves.

The wide appeal of the third-culture thinkers is not due solely to their writing ability; what traditionally has been called "science" has today become "public culture." Stewart Brand writes that "Science is the only news. When you scan through a newspaper or magazine, all the human interest stuff is the same old he-said-she-said, the politics and economics the same sorry cyclic dramas, the fashions a pathetic illusion of newness, and even the technology is predictable if you know the science. Human nature doesn't change much; science does, and the change accrues, altering the world irreversibly." We now live in a world in which the rate of change is the biggest change. Science has thus become a big story.

Scientific topics receiving prominent play in newspapers and magazines over the past several years include molecular biology, artificial intelligence, artificial life, chaos theory, massive parallelism, neural nets, the inflationary universe, fractals, complex adaptive systems, superstrings, biodiversity, nanotechnology, the human genome, expert systems, punctuated equilibrium, cellular automata, fuzzy logic, space biospheres, the Gaia hypothesis, virtual reality, cyberspace, and teraflop machines. Among others. There is no canon or accredited list of acceptable ideas. The strength of the third culture is precisely that it can tolerate disagreements about which ideas are to be taken seriously. Unlike previous intellectual pursuits, 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.

The role of the intellectual includes communicating. Intellectuals are not just people who know things but people who shape the thoughts of their generation. An intellectual is a synthesizer, a publicist, a communicator. In his 1987 book The Last Intellectuals, the cultural historian Russell Jacoby bemoaned the passing of a generation of public thinkers and their replacement by bloodless academicians. He was right, but also wrong. The third-culture thinkers are the new public intellectuals.

America now is the intellectual seedbed for Europe and Asia. This trend started with the prewar emigration of Albert Einstein and other European scientists and was further fueled by the post- Sputnik boom in scientific education in our universities. The emergence of the third culture introduces new modes of intellectual discourse and reaffirms the preeminence of America in the realm of important ideas. Throughout history, intellectual life has been marked by the fact that only a small number of people have done the serious thinking for everybody else. What we are witnessing is a passing of the torch from one group of thinkers, the traditional literary intellectuals, to a new group, the intellectuals of the emerging third culture.

John Brockman
1991 

Dennett on Wieseltier V. Pinker in The New Republic

Let's Start With A Respect For Truth
[9.10.13]

Introduction

"The third culture consists of those scientists and other thinkers in the empirical world who, through their work and expository writing, are taking the place of the traditional intellectual in rendering visible the deeper meanings of our lives, redefining who and what we are." (From The Emerging Third Culture", 1991) 

Last month, The New Republic published Steven Pinker's article "Science Is Not The Enemy: An impassioned plea to neglected novelists, embattled professors, and tenure-less historian" (August 6, 2013). A link to a  3-minute video attacking the article  was inserted in the middle of Pinker's text—"WATCH: Leon Wieseltier's rejoinder: Science doesn't have all the answers". Billed as one of "An irregular video-interview series with New Republic Literary Editor Leon Wieseltier", the video was conveniently ready for posting within minutes of the publication of Pinker's article.
 
Now, a month later, Wieseltier is back with a 5,650-word attack in the magazine entitled "Crimes Against Humanities: Now science wants to invade the liberal arts. Don't let it happen." (September 3, 2013).
 

This is not a new debate. In my 1991 essay "The Emerging Third Culture", I wrote:

In the past few years, the playing field of American intellectual life has shifted, and the traditional intellectual has become increasingly marginalized. A 1950s education in Freud, Marx, and modernism is not a sufficient qualification for a thinking person in the 1990s. Indeed, the traditional American intellectuals are, in a sense, increasingly reactionary, and quite often proudly (and perversely) ignorant of many of the truly significant intellectual accomplishments of our time. Their culture, which dismisses science, is often nonempirical. It uses its own jargon and washes its own laundry. It is chiefly characterized by comment on comments, the swelling spiral of commentary eventually reaching the point where the real world gets lost.

In 1959 C.P. Snow published a book titled The Two Cultures. On the one hand, there were the literary intellectuals; on the other, the scientists. He noted with incredulity that during the 1930s the literary intellectuals, while no one was looking, took to referring to themselves as "the intellectuals," as though there were no others. This new definition by the "men of letters" excluded scientists such as the astronomer Edwin Hubble, the mathematician John von Neumann, the cyberneticist Norbert Wiener, and the physicists Albert Einstein, Niels Bohr, and Werner Heisenberg.

How did the literary intellectuals get away with it? ... 

In a second edition of "The Two Cultures", published in 1963, Snow added a new essay, "The Two Cultures: A Second Look," in which he optimistically suggested that a new culture, a "third culture," would emerge and close the communications gap between the literary intellectuals and the scientists. In Snow's third culture, the literary intellectuals would be on speaking terms with the scientists. Although I borrow Snow's phrase, it does not describe the third culture he predicted. Literary intellectuals are not communicating with scientists. Scientists are communicating directly with the general public.  ...

Given Wieseltier's screed, we can all be thankful that this is happening. His clueless attack is evidence that he doesn't know, and doesn't even know that he doesn't know. It's no accident that Prospect Magazine has scientists (and Edge contributors) Richard DawkinsSteven PinkerDaniel Kahneman, and Jared Diamond at, or near, the top of their "World's Greatest Thinkers 2013" poll ("a snapshot of the intellectual trends that dominate our age"). Or that The Guardian has proclaimed Edge the world's smartest website

Edge is pleased to publish the following response to Wieseltier from philosopher Daniel C. Dennett.

 

DANIEL C. DENNETT is Austin B. Fletcher Professor of Philosophy, Co-Director, Center for Cognitive Studies, Tufts University. Among his books are Intuition Pumps; Darwin's Dangerous Idea; and Consciousness Explained.

Daniel C. Dennett's Edge Bio page 

__

Further Reading on Edge:  "The Emerging Third Culture" (1991); "The New Humanists" (2000), "The Expanding Third Culture" (2006).


DENNETT ON WIESELTIER V. PINKER IN THE NEW REPUBLIC

Leon Wieseltier sees that the humanities are in a deep crisis, but his essay, "Crimes against the Humanities," is not a helpful contribution to its resolution. Name-calling and sarcasm are typically the last refuge of somebody who can't think of anything else to say to fend off a challenge he doesn't understand and can't abide. His response to Steven Pinker's proposed conciliation of science and the humanities is neither polite nor fair, and amounts, in the end, to a blustery attempt to lay down the law:

It is not for science to say whether science belongs in morality and politics and art. Those are philosophical matters, and science is not philosophy, even if philosophy has since its beginnings been receptive to science.  

This is true enough, if carefully interpreted, but Wieseltier asserts it without argument, showing that he himself is not even trying to be a philosopher, but rather a Wise Divulger of the Undeniable Verities. He knows—take it from him. So this simple passage actually illustrates the very weakness of the humanities today that has encouraged scientists and other conscientious thinkers to try their own hand at answering the philosophical questions that press in on us, venturing beyond the confines of their disciplines to fill the vacuum left by the humanities.

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