Where Avant-Garde Thinking Reflects The Present


20 years: Online platform
Where Avant-Garde Thinking Reflects The Present
By Tobias Sedlmaier 6.30.2017

The online platform Edge has been looking for the big questions for twenty years - and for the even bigger answers of life. A critical appraisal.

Internet Presence of Edge (photo: screenshot)

In the beginning is the question. Born out of restless nights and ingenious inspirations, it is examined in cold daylight, perhaps focused more precisely, and sent out by its ingenious creators into the ignorant world.

What sounds like a diffusely romantic myth of origin is in fact the recurrent practice of finding Edge’s Annual Question. On this online platform, major contemporary (mostly American) scientists and a selection of trendsetters have been formulating answers to more or less urgent questions of our time for twenty years.

How does the world work?

These can be very vague, for example: What Now? Or they can be leading questions: What Scientific Idea Is Ready for Retirement? Almost always the notion of big ideas—either brilliant or dangerous ones—resonates here; and of course, life, the internet, and all the other themes come in.

The answers, which are first published on the website, later in book form, can be long essays with examples and formulas that run five print pages. Or they are as aphoristic as Brian Eno's response about the value of the Internet:  "The great promise of the Internet was that more information would automatically yield better decisions. The great disappointment is that more information actually yields more possibilities to confirm what you already believed anyway.“

Master of Ceremonies of this sophisticated debate forum is John Brockman, author and literary agent, who is called a giant by some. The industrious intellectual impresario has himself written a handful of books, edited around fifty more and performed in an inter-disciplinary  program of avant-garde events with John Cage and Jorge Luis Borges in New York. He was also a Godfather for the think tanks "Reality Club" as well as Edge.

At a moment in history when borders are erected more quickly than torn down, you can imagine the larger than life Brockman with his characteristic wide-brimmed hat as an iconoclastic breaker of barriers. He is equally at home in the role of the business-minded entrepreneur as in the role of the theorist well aware of the sensitive changes in the Zeitgeist, oscillating between Andy Warhol and Norbert Wiener, at the intersection of art and cybernetics.

Why some scientific ideas must die


JB: It all started with a young scientist named Laurie Santos at a conference that I ran saying, “How do we get rid of some of these ideas that are just standing in front of us? Just blocking everybody?”

LP: What are the ideas that blind us now do you think? And blind us into confusion, and argument, and that kind of controversy?

JB: Name a field. ... It comes down to: is science advertising or is it argument?

LP: Your favorite. Which would be one of yours?

JB: Daniel Kahneman has studied human rationality and found out that characteristics we thought we had as humans aren’t necessarily the case. We are not Homo Economicus, we’re not the rational human beings we thought we were. A lot of what we do is pre-conscious and without acknowledgement.

LP: Now that’s interesting. So that’s a big idea about who we are and how we control our lives with rationality and free will. Another idea was the idea of love as well. This is one that attracts criticism from one of your contributors. So tell us a bit more about that. ...




As a New York agent, John Brockman manages the star authors of science, as a visionary behind the scenes, he creates a new image of man for the 21st century. By Georg Diez   

Who is John Brockman? Even in New York, the world capital of people who know just about everybody, they are uncertain.

"Brockman, Brockman?" Shake of the head. "I don't know," says the reporter from the New Yorker. Says the colleague of the New York Review of Books. Says the young writer who cofounded the magazine n + 1.

In the literary milieu where he is ignored more than despised, John Brockman is about as well known as the first three digits of the number Pi.

"This crowd sees everything through the lenses of culture and politics," he says. "But an understanding of life, of the world, can only come through biology, through science."

Ebola, stem cells, brain research—Who needs the new David Foster Wallace, the new Philip Roth?

"The great questions of the world concern scientific news," says Brockman. "We are at the beginning of a revolution. And what we hear from the mainstream is: "Please make it go away."

"He is a key figure of the late 20th and early 21st century, the éminence grise and major source of inspiration for the globally dominant culture, which he himself named as the 'third culture.'"

And there you are—this is how it goes with John Brockman who doesn’t like to waste time in the midst of the contradictions of the present. "Come, let's start," he says in a good mood and puts a recording device on his desk. "I'm turning it on, you don't mind?"

He is charming, without hiding his own interests. He is proud of his life, his intelligence, without that he would have to apologize for it. He is a key figure of the late 20th and early 21st century, the éminence grise and major source of inspiration for the globally dominant culture, which he himself named as the "third culture."

It is not Brockman, but his authors, who are well-known: Richard Dawkins, Steven Pinker, Daniel C. Dennett, Jared Diamond, Daniel Kahneman. Physicists, neuroscientists, geneticists, evolutionary biologists, fixed stars of the science age, superstars of nonfiction bestseller lists, the reason for Brockman's financial success and good mood.

What is the Common Ground Between Art and Science? And How is Beethoven Like Darwin?

A Conversation with


Novelist Ian McEwan and theoretical physicist Nima Arkani-Hamed met at the Science Museum in London to mark the opening of the Large Hadron Collider exhibition. This is an edited extract of their conversation.

Nima Arkani-Hamed, Martha Kearney and Ian McEwan at London's Science Museum Photograph: Jennie Hills/Science Museum


IAN McEWAN: That old, two-culture matter is still with us, ever since [CP] Snow promulgated it back in the 50s. It still is possible to be a flourishing, public intellectual with absolutely no reference to science but it's happening less and less. And I think it's less a change of any decision in the culture at large, just a social reality pressing in on us. And it's true that climate change forces us to at least get a smattering of some idea of what it is to predict systems that have more than two or three variables and whether this is even possible. The internet has created sites like John Brockman's wonderful, where it's possible for laymen to sit in on conversations between scientists. And when scientists have to address each other out of their specialisms they have to speak plain English, they have to abandon their jargons, and we're the beneficiaries of that.

NIMA ARKANI-HAMED: It's an asymmetry that doesn't really need to exist. Certainly many scientists are very appreciative of the arts. The essential gulf is one of language and especially in theoretical physics, the basic difficulty is that most people don't understand our language of mathematics which we use to describe everything we know about the universe. And so while I'm capable of listening to and intensely enjoying a Beethoven sonata or an Ian McEwan novel it can be more difficult for people in the arts to have some appreciation for what we do. But at a deeper level there's a commonality between certain parts of the arts and certain parts of the sciences. ... MORE

[EDITOR'S NOTE: Related reading on Edge"The Third Culture", 1991]


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