Edge 125—September 11, 2003

(8,400 words)


The New Humanists: Science at the Edge has just arrived in the bookstores and is stacked up in the front of Barnes & Noble superstores in the vicinity of Harry Potter and Hilary Clinton. (It helps when the book is one of the initial publications of B&N's new publishing company). Also, major B&N stores now have strategically placed tables under the sign "New Humanists" on which piles of books by Diamond, Dennett, Deutsch, Kurzweil, Pinker, et al have been placed.

Two live events, open to the public, are scheduled at flagship B&N superstores in New York City and Los Angeles. Steve Riggio, CEO of Barnes & Noble will be on hand to begin the program in New York City. I will be at both events to introduce the panelists. Both events will televised on C-Span for broadcast a few weeks after the events.

New York City
Thursday, September 18th
Barnes & Noble, Union Square
Topic: "How The Universe Designs Itself "
Panelists: Lee Smolin, Marvin Minsky and Daniel C. Dennett

Los Angeles
7:30 pm
Thursday, September 25th

Barnes & Noble, The Grove (near Farmer's Market)
Topic: "The New Humanists: Science at the Edge"
Panelists: Jared Diamond, Marc D. Hauser, and Jaron Lanier
The New Humanists: Science at the Edge begins with my essay, "New Humanists", in which I wrote:

Something radically new is in the air: new ways of understanding physical systems, new ways of thinking about thinking that call into question many of our basic assumptions. A realistic biology of the mind, advances in physics, information technology, genetics, neurobiology, engineering, the chemistry of materials—all are challenging basic assumptions of who and what we are, of what it means to be human. The arts and the sciences are again joining together as one culture, the third culture. Those involved in this effort—on either side of C.P. Snow's old divide—are at the center of today's intellectual action. They are the new humanists.

Here's the table of contents:

Introduction...John Brockman: "The New Humanists" ••• Part I: Homo sapiens...Jared Diamond: "A New Scientific Synthesis of Human History" Steven Pinker: "A Biological Understanding of Human Nature"Helena Cronin: "Getting Human Nature Right" • Andy Clark: "Natural-Born Cyborgs" • Marc D. Hauser: "Animal Minds" • Richard Wrangham: "The Evolution of Cooking" • Daniel C. Dennett: "The Computational Perspective" • Stephen M. Kosslyn: "What Shape Are a German Shepherd's Ears" ••• Part II: Machina sapiens...Jordan B. Pollack: "Software Is a Cultural Solvent" • David Gelernter: "The Second Coming: a Manifesto"Rodney Brooks: "Making Living Systems"Hans Moravec: "Making Minds" • David Deutsch: "Quantum Computation"Marvin Minsky: "What Comes After Minds"Ray Kurzweil: "The Singularity" • Jaron Lanier: "One Half of a Manifesto" ••• Part III: And Beyond...Seth Lloyd: "How Fast, How Small, How Powerful— Moore's Law and the Ultimate Laptop" Alan Guth: "A Golden Age of Cosmology" • Paul Steinhardt: "The Cyclic Universe" • Lisa Randall: "Theories of the Brane"Lee Smolin: "Loop Quantum Gravity"Martin Rees: "A Look Ahead" ••• Epilogue...Responses to "The New Humanists" Nicholas Humphrey, Jaron Lanier, Joseph LeDoux, John Horgan, Timothy Taylor, Carlo Rovelli, Steven Johnson, Lee Smolin, Douglas Rushkoff, Piet Hut, Marc D. Hauser, Mihalyi Csikzentmihalyi, Denis Dutton, Daniel C. Dennett, Howard Rheingold, Chris Anderson


Order The New Humanists from bn.com

August. Edge is quiet. The conversation is on hold. The Edge community has hit the road...Jaron Lanier learned about clannishness and the perception of enemies by leaving Berkeley and traveling to Indiana; Daniel C. Dennett sailed the coast of Maine; Timothy Taylor enjoyed Wagner’s Valkyries at the State Opera in Vienna; David Berreby contemplated territoriality and variety on his roof in Brooklyn; Steven Pinker delighted in meeting his 19-year-old mother and 25-year-old father through their honeymoon pictures of 50 summers ago; Delta Willis left her houseboat on the Hudson river in New York City for Swansea; James O'Donnell schmoozed with 123 7-foot tall fiberglass bears in Berlin; John Horgan communed with rehabbed birds and read blood-soaked books; George Dyson checked in from Interstate 90 in South Dakota; William Calvin matched up the apes in the San Diego Zoo with people he knows; Alison Gopnik gathered with 26 immediate family members in the Umbrian Hills; Hans- Joachim Metzger used his imaginary two-camera-device make black light objects in Munich; Irene Pepperberg traveled with a parrot in Europe and talked to people about animal cognition; Margaret Wertheim visited a Jules Verne-like chamber for studying plasmas in New Mexico; Susan Blackmore endured the hottest summer in Bristol in 343 years by working in her garden; Marc D. Hauser introduced trained eagles to simulate attacks on the poor innocent monkeys rhesus monkeys on the Island of Cayo Santiago, Puerto Rico; Keith Devlin watched one of the Palio races for the first time in Siena; Roger Schank stayed at home on the beach in Palm Beach, Florida; and Paul Davies fulfilled his childhood dream of visiting the independent country of San Marino...

Jaron Lanier

Berkeley, California


This has been the Summer of clannishness. On every level it seems that humans are clumping into opposing groups to an even greater degree than usual, at least from the perspectives available to me.

Most of my time has been spent in Berkeley, with sojourns to Toronto, Dartmouth, and various points in the interior of the USA, like Indiana.

While visiting Indiana to give a lecture, I saw big block letters on a billboard spelling out a slogan that I couldn't even believe at first, "Nuke Berkeley." I must say, Berkeley doesn't have much of anything kind to say about Indiana either.

My European friends have started to seem like distant aliens. They don't read the same news, or even share the same political vocabulary as Indiana, and lately can barely even talk to Berkeley.

Scientific communities seem punchier than usual as well. I recently wrote to a physicist who was a stranger to me simply to praise a textbook he had written, but when I mentioned that I was friendly with his ideological opponents in the quantum gravity debates, he became rather cold and dismissive.

I think of myself as a liberal, but by Berkeley standards I'm a reactionary conservative. For the first time in my life, I haven't felt free to speak my mind in casual conversations. For instance, a friend of mine in town made a point of trying to board a commercial flight recently while wearing a button that said, "Suspected terrorist." He said he was trying to make a statement about the deterioration of civil liberties—that all citizens were being treated like terrorists. The pilot said he was uncomfortable with the button and asked him to take it off. This resulted in a stand-off, and eventually my friend left the plane.

In the Berkeley context this story is about evil police state repression of free speech, but to me, having lived through the attack in NYC, it seemed more like a case of attempted hate speech and the resolution a simple matter of kindness to the pilots. If someone wore a button saying, "Suspected Nazi", or "Suspected rapist", I would feel the same way. The unintentional point would be more powerful than the intended point.

While I'm ready to state this opinion in print and get some diffuse and delayed grief for it, it wouldn't be worth the trouble to state it in most conversations I seem to find myself in in Berkeley. My opinion might be wrong, but I'd prefer to feel free to state it, and it's strange to me not to have that freedom in the ultra-polarized climate we are living though at the moment.

I wish there was more scientific study of clannishness and the perception of enemies. Anthropologists and primatologists can tell us a few things, but what I'm most curious about is the genetic components of the idea of "the enemy." Maybe if we understood the part of us that can be activated to fear the appointed enemy of the moment, we could learn to soften our worst impulses.

A month before the attacks I had published an interview with Global Business Network in which I toyed with the idea of regularly spraying anti-depressive or perhaps euphoria-inducing pharmaceutical compounds on the Middle East and Afghanistan. Probably too late to try that idea.

It turns out that the "Nuke Berkeley" part of Indiana I visited was very pro-Prozac, since the stuff was manufactured there, and local mythology held that a higher concentration of people were using it in the neighborhood than anywhere else. As for Berkeley, well, it would seem to be one of the more self-medicated places I've visited, judging from the odors that reach you on the sidewalk and what you see growing in home gardens. Is it possible that we're medicating ourselves into a state of increased paranoia?

That thought has occurred to me in the past to explain aspects of the Berkeley side of the divide. Since the '60s there's been a tremendous cachet to paranoid thinking in "progressive" culture. Some of the most prominent progressive thinkers have specifically been technicians of paranoia enhancement, such as Chomsky and Pynchon. It's much easier to be taken seriously in Berkeley if you're manifestly paranoid. This seems a shame to me, since it is a self-disempowering stance.

On a purely anecdotal basis I observe that a certain paranoid edge seems to rise over time in many of the drug users I have known, even though the drugs in question have been quite varied. The literature does seem to support the idea that varied disruptions can induce paranoia, and I wonder how closely paranoia is followed by the phenomena of exaggerated enemy perception or clannishness.

One of the sad casualties of the recent financial scandals was the support of unusual scientific research by the accounting firm Ernst and Young. After the Enron scandal and all the rest, accounting firms were told to narrow their businesses in order to avoid conflicts of interest. E&S had been a key source of support to researchers like Stuart Kauffman who were interested in finding new scientific paths to understanding human affairs. The neuroscientist Antonio Damasio and I had been among the "Ernst and Young Fellows" before the fall.

We were about to embark upon some new lines of thinking about biological components to economic and political behavior. One of the noisiest trends in economics follows from the astonishing recent discovery that humans are "irrational", rather than the rational players of classical economic models, but even that's probably not quite the right idea. It's not that people are irrational, but that our sense of rationality arises out of a long biological history and reflects different survival pressures than we face today. We are not irrational, but differently rational.

An example of the sort of biologically-informed economics one might be able to do is to identify a sweet spot in the otherwise undifferentiated continuum between socialism and Laissez Faire capitalism. This has to do with the sense of reward. An argument against pure socialism is that people need to be able to earn rewards in order to be motivated to achieve excellence.

To the degree that socialism has ever existed, it does seem to have produced rather complacent, static, and grey societies. But how much reward does a person really need to be offered in order to feel motivated? Does a CEO need 10 times, 100 times, or 1000 times the reward of the lowest paid worker to be optimally motivated? Is it possible to examine the biology of the reward pathways in the human brain to say something about this? Could biology serve to help find a point of compromise? There don't seem to be any other ideas on the table for resolving the dispute between Indiana and Berkeley, so biology ought to be given a chance.



p.s. Regarding the above "postcard" image...Berkeley hosted an "only here" conference called "Mind States", in which Sue Blackmore, V.S. Ramachandran, and I were joined by a crush of speakers interested in the psychedelic experience. I've personally never used drugs, not even alcohol, and an amused Timothy Leary used to call me "The control group" when he was alive.* [see editor's note] At any rate, a wonderful photographer named Dean Chamberlain created portraits of some of the speakers and the image here is what he made of me and some of my musical instruments. His exposures last for hours, during which he moves about with assorted lights in order to create an extraordinary saturated ambience. My talk at the conference was about cephalopod cognition, so the portrait has an underwater theme with assorted stuffed cephalopods showing up (can you find them?)

[* Ed. Note: Leary said the same thing to me in 1965. Jaron was 5 years old. JB]

Daniel C. Dennett

Pickering Island, Maine

Fog is to be expected when you're sailing on the coast of Maine, and it pays to have a few good books along to read while waiting for the scale-up that let's you see where you're going. When not sailing or rebuilding my barn this summer, I've been finishing off overdue writing projects and preparing for a seminar I'm teaching this fall at Tufts with Nassir Ghaemi, a psychiatrist at Harvard Medical School who has a Masters in philosophy from Tufts: "Broken Minds". (And no, you can't audit it; we're overbooked with students taking the course for credit.)

I've also been thinking a lot about religion. The taboo against subjecting religious practices to scientific scrutiny leaves us more or less voluntarily blindfolded about some of the most potent and dangerous phenomena in the world today. It is time to defy that taboo. For thousands of years, human beings have lived in a sort of culturally induced trance, subjugating their wills to invisible beings and forces, laboring and sacrificing, building great temples, painting great pictures, composing great music-and killing great numbers of differently entranced human beings—all for the greater glory of ... something unknown and mysterious. How can the astringent world of science compete with the reassuring warmth of communally shared secrets and ceremonies, the spine-tingling beauties of religious ecstacy? People want their lives to be decorated with mystery, punctuated by magic, spiced with adventures of "the
spirit." Shouldn't they be allowed to dream on in peace? I'm afraid not. The stakes are too high, and we can no longer allow the entranced to impose their follies on the rest of us.

Tomorrow, Labor Day, we harvest the last of the tomatoes and cukes and pack up for the return to Massachusetts.

Dan Dennett

Timothy Taylor

Vienna, Austria

Dear John,

The summer began in Austria. I was guest professor in Vienna last semester, teaching archaeological method and theory and laying the groundwork of research for my new book on material culture. My association with the Institute of Prehistory stretches back to my early days of digging when a small group of us, mainly but not exclusively Cambridge students, were annually hosted by Professor Herwig Friesinger at his marvellously well-run site of Gars/Thunau in the Kamp valley, northwest of the capital. This time I had a family to bring with me. The girls attended Viennese schools and learnt German while developing cake- and schnitzel-eating skills. We enjoyed Wagner’s Valkyries at the State Opera and ambient music with my composer friend Hans-Joachim Rodelius.

The journey was an education in itself—first Bradford to the North Sea coast at Hull; overnight ferry to Zeebrugge; the two-day drive through Germany; arriving to haul everything four floors up to our splendid appartment in the Porzellangasse. In contrast to flying, we absorbed the extent of Europe in real terms: fields, hills, river crossings, the changes in topography and the styles of the houses. But to be exact this was the extent of western Europe. There is an old saying in Austria—"the Balkans begin in Vienna", and we made a series of exciting day trips—visas no longer required—to the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary, each only about an hour’s drive distant.

The east-west boundary goes back before the Iron Curtain. Nor is it simply that the Turks got no further than Lower Austria in A.D. 1529. There is a clear edge here even 20 million years ago. My old friend Hans Tuzar, who directs the Krahuletz Museum in Eggenburg, took us all fossil hunting on the edge of the old Pannonian sea. Look out eastward nowadays from what was once the cliff edge of western Europe over what was once ocean, the rolling lowlands of the Weinviertel ("Wine Quarter") rapidly give way to the Hungarian Puszta, westernmost outlier of the great Eurasian steppelands. Behind you is the reticulated, hedged and walled world of the west; in front the vast flat spaces that reach, almost unbroken, to the borders of India and China. Like Suleiman the Magnificent, the Iron Age Scythian nomads got no further than this in their raids westwards from South Russia. And, coming out of the west, this was also one of the last settled stopping places for the Celts before they began their ravages of Transylvania and Thrace to eventually reach and sack Delphi in 279 B.C. Hans and I are now planning to excavate the fortress of a particular Celtic tribe called the Kampi (after whom the Kamp valley is named)—a tribe famous enough to be known to the Alexandrian geographer Ptolemy.

The ancient geographers knew Europe pretty well, right through to the remote island of Ierne, known to Greek traders by at least 530 BC. By sheer chance we ended our summer there. An Irish television company rang to ask if I could come over to talk about sex and death in the Neolithic. We had scheduled a family camping trip to Scotland but we took the Holyhead-Dublin ferry instead. After doing the television archaeology bit around the massive 5000-year old passage tomb complexes of Newgrange and Knowth in the bend of the river Boyne, we headed southwest to the Dingle peninsula. At Gallarus Oratory we pitched tent, rather grandly, on the westernmost campsite in mainland Europe. The place was dotted with the corbel-vaulted beehive huts of the prehistoric inhabitants. They knew beyond doubt that they were at an edge too, all Europe to their back, and only the Atlantic ahead. But I thought of you, over the glittering horizon in NY, and reflected on how our inner geography conditions everything we see, and the perspective of prehistory conditions it yet further.



David Berreby

Brooklyn, New York

Dear John,

With a book due and no cash to speak of, I spent the summer, when it wasn't raining, on the roof of my building in Brooklyn. Thinking about how and why people get persuaded that they're members of meaningful tribes—ethnic, religious, national, sports-fan, whatever.

These identities are complicated to learn and maintain, and yet they come to feel as simple as breathing. That's weird. And they feel as essential as breathing, too. That's really weird. Many people would rather die (or think they would) than change religion or flag. Many would be glad to kill someone (or think they would) whose existence threatens their tribe's welfare (even if the victim poses no threat to their individual life or livelihood). I'd really like to understand why the mind works this way. What I am finishing now is a modest proposal for how to think about these questions, with reports about relevant research (which is going on in a number of fields).

The location isn't nearly as penitential as it sounds. In fact, I love it up here. On the night of the blackout, Mars and the constellations looked brilliant. With a light breeze, the roof was so much more pleasant than my apartment that I slept up there. During the day crows look me over, flying by at shoulder level. Big wading birds sail by, commuting between their safe islands to the west and the good hunting ponds to the east, in the park, the botanical garden and the cemetery. I've seen and heard many forms of avian surprise; cardinals, mockingbirds, doves and herons are startled to find a human perched near them. Once two little blue herons they flew directly over my head, about eight feet above me.

At five flights up, though, I don't have the perspective of a penthouse deity. The height of Brooklyn neighborhoods is still on a human scale. It was dictated by fluid dynamics—water from the reservoirs can't rise more than four or five stories without pumps. I hear kids ride bicycles on the sidewalk. People at the corner are repairing a car. It seems to involve a boombox and a lot of consultations. If I look east I can see a family setting up for dominoes—table, folding chairs. The couple up the block who like to bicycle are heading out for an evening ride, in their spandex and helmets. Another couple strolls down the other side of the street, holding hands. They pass the front garden of a house across the street, where a dog is snoozing on the stoop. Next door, a woman tends a tree. On a rooftop a block away a someone is doing tai-chi exercises in late-day light. I consider waving; decide against. Roof etiquette is to pretend you have the sky to yourself.

So this was a good place to contemplate territoriality and variety. The other day, a flash of white caught my eye and I saw a little budgerigar, on the lam from his cage. I tried to lure him over, but he cocked his head, looked at the cloudless blue sky, and flew off.

All this is probably way off topic. But I liked the question.



Steven Pinker

Truro, Massachusetts

Dear John,

These postcards show where I have been spending my last two months. They were not taken this summer, however, but fifty summers ago, and they show not me but my parents, Harry and Roslyn. A pleasant activity of this summer has been to plan (together with my siblings Susan and Robert) an anniversary celebration for my parents, who were married September 3, 1953.

We asked them for old photos, and some were Kodachrome slides. Kodachrome was the first color film in widespread use, and among its remarkable properties is longevity. The slides look as if they were taken yesterday, their quality limited only by the cheap camera with which they were taken.

The delight of meeting my 19-year-old mother and 25-year-old father was intensified when I saw where the pictures were taken. For their honeymoon, these penniless newlyweds had borrowed my grandfather's car and drove from Montreal to New England, New York, and Washington DC. Two of their stops present me with neat coincidences, and an opportunity to see the effects of fifty years on familiar places and people.

[My parents, Roz and Harry Pinker, on the Pilgrim beach in 1953]
These two show my parents on the exact beach in Truro on which my wife and I have a summer cottage. We reconnoitered this stretch to find the exact place they were standing; it wasn't hard, because many of the houses in the photo are still there. But beaches constantly morph because of erosion and deposition, and this one has accreted several hundred feet of sand in the past five decades. The spot where my mother is standing is now a good walk away from the water line. The Provincetown skyline behind my father is virtually identical, a testimony to the town's preservation efforts.
[Harry & friend at John Harvard's feet]
The next three were taken at that other Massachusetts tourist destination, Harvard. By another coincidence, this is a significant locale for me fifty summers later: I have just moved back to Harvard, after 21 years at MIT. The first photo shows Harry and a friend John Harvard's shoe a traditional good-luck rub. John is still there, his left toe still shiny, but University Hall in the background has changed. The awnings, an adaptation to summer sun before the use of air conditioning, are gone. The ivy is gone, too, belying the "ivy league" designation; it was taken down when I was a graduate student in the late 1970s because it was damaging the historic buildings.
[Harry & friend seated on brick wall]
This one shows Harry and a friend at the Harkness Commons at Harvard, a block from where I now live. The brick ledge is still there (the shrubs are only a bit bigger), as is the space-age sculpture reflected in the glass. The complex was designed by Walter Gropius, Dean of the Graduate School of Design, a nice example of postwar International Style, with several low geometric buildings in a large open space connected by crisscrossing paths. At the time it must have looked fantastically futuristic; now it strikes many as archaic and inefficient, and there are rumors that it will become a victim of Harvard's expansion plans.
[Harry & Roz with Widener pillars]
In this last photograph, taken on the steps of the Widener Library, the building hasn't changed in the interim, only the people. Seeing this couple, young enough to be my children, is overwhelming; it fills me with the foolish desire to tell them about the careers, family, and changed world of the half-century to come.

Best wishes,


Delta Willis

Swansea, Massachusetts

Dear John,

After 32 years in New York City (22 of them on a houseboat at the 79th Street Boat Basin) I moved to Swansea, Massachusetts, north of Newport, Rhode Island. Surprisingly painless was this, because of e-mail, streaming radio, and Zabar's online. Withdrawal peeked with the August blackout, when I became sentimental about the one in Manhattan in 1977: chocolate covered strawberries were gratis at Ruskay's, and sidewalk venues on Columbus Avenue wafted clouds of Cannabis, perhaps because police were otherwise occupied, or because it was the 70s. Now the minds of baby boomer are altered free of charge, gaps in speech as spotty as our dream to change the world.

I became sentimental about that lost dream (more the current nightmare), I pull myself up by my own bra straps: How wonderful to sit here on a dead end street in New England yet feel in touch with friends in London and Nairobi, to edit my own web site, or better yet, read Edge.

My plan for the winter is to return to the distant past, exploring Zanzibar and the Swahili culture. Coastal East Africa combines previous interest in archeological sites plus current ramifications of terrorism, a span of 2,000 years tied together by the classic Arab dhow, with its lateen sail. I thought about navigating these subjects when sanding the dagger board for my new/old Sunfish, to be launched Labor Day weekend with a ceremonial Swahili feast, poetry, and a red wine toast to Wilfred Thesiger, the cranky explorer who died recently in London at the age of 93. Known for his desert walks, Thesiger eschewed technology and was rabid about science education.

My summer postcard image was taken in the backyard of the 1906 bungalow where I now live, replete with a fireplace, herb garden, and a massive bedroom/riverview, all unaffected by the tide. The house is only 200 yards from the shore. A new rudder will guide me in new waters. As a New York friend said about my departure, "Change is good, even when it's bad."

All the best,


James O'Donnell

Berlin, Germany

Hey John,

These are a few of the 123 7 foot tall fiberglass bears that spent the summer doing the hokey-pokey on what may still be the site of the future US Embassy in Berlin. It's right by the Brandenburg Gate, on land that was part of no-man's land. If the Germans had left the Wall in place, the Americans would now feel more secure about building on that site, so until our fear of the world is placated, the site is empty and these bears—each one decorated thematically to represent a different country (the mostly red guy is Hungary, the blue one is Ukraine, land of my godchildren)—meant to suggest a more pacific vision of the family of nations.

All the best,

John Horgan

Garrison, New York


Summer is the peak season for my wife Suzie's wild-bird rehabbing, so we've got birds galore here in our Hudson Highlands hideaway. There's a blue heron with a bum leg in the garage; a cat-mauled waxwing in our bedroom; mallard toddlers in the back yard; adolescent bluejays and robins in the 400-square-foot flight cage. My favorite is George, a crow foundling who stuck around after Suzie released him two months ago. When I stroll on the deck at dawn, George careens out of the trees and onto my shoulder, chuckling and wagging his tail. When Suzie and the kids and I go for a walk in the woods, George flaps from tree to tree before us like a scout.

We can't entirely forget the woes of the world. From a hill near our house we can see Indian Point, the nuclear plant that since 9/11 many of us have feared could be a terrorist target. Now and then we hear the thunder of artillery practice at West Point, just across the Hudson. And all summer I've been reading blood-soaked books such as Richard Wrangham's Demonic Males and Lawrence Kealey's War Before Civilization. I'm looking for evidence to counter the belief that war or the threat thereof are ineradicable aspects of our culture.

Over the past year I've concluded to my dismay that many people—and not only nasty right wing-style hawks but even nice liberal doves—share this belief. I don't, or won't. I'm like one of those beauty contestants who says her dream is "world peace." I've already turned up some factoids that, at the very least, subvert the linkage of war to gonads. As John Keegan points out in A History of Warfare, some legendary warriors, such as the Byzantine general Narses, were eunuchs. Conversely, in On Killing, the Army psychologist Dave Grossman notes that most normal men fight reluctantly. Only about one in five Americans in close combat in World War II fired their guns. Intensified training boosted soldiers' firing rates in the Vietnam War to over 90 percent, but psychiatric disorders among vets skyrocketed. I try to take solace from findings like these, and when that doesn't work, I take George for a walk. Anyway, thoughts on war and peace from you and other Edgies are of course welcome.



George Dyson

South Dakota - Interstate 90

Dear John,

Wish you were here (on Interstate 90 in South Dakota). It's your turn to drive...

Drove the 3,069 miles from Bellingham WA to Princeton NJ in 96 hours at the end of last summer, and, in early July, took a bit more time (with daughter Lauren) driving back. Stopped in Portland to speak at OSCON (O'Reilly's Open Source Convention) where Tim's gang of 1,800 independent-minded coders enjoyed receiving long-delayed words of encouragement from their predecessors on the Institute for Advanced Study's Electronic Computer Project, for instance this scrap of paper (ca. 1946) that turned up in Julian Bigelow's basement a week before I left:

The text reads:

"Orders: Let a word (40 binary digits) be 2 orders, each order = C(A) = Command {1-10 / 21-30} + Address {11-20 / 31-40}.

In the Gospel according to von Neumann, this is where God said "Let there be light."



William Calvin

San Diego, California

Hi John,

I've been visiting the distant cousins this summer—the very distant ones, the apes with whom we shared a common ancestor between 18 and 7 million years ago. While I'd prefer to visit them in the wild, in southeast Asia and central Africa, I had to settle for an intense dose of them at the San Diego Zoo's excellent habitats. I arranged for a behind-the-scenes visit with their keepers for a dozen scientists interested in human evolution, who wanted to know more about what ape behaviors were like.

Apes evolved from the monkeys about 25 million years ago; they lost their tails in favor of doubling brain size. The gibbons and siamangs are on a branch that dates back about 18 million years, and the orangs on the branch at about 12 million years. They are the acrobats of the apes, with shoulders far more versatile than monkeys. The siamangs and the orangs are housed together at the San Diego Zoo and it makes for a fascinating display of virtuosity. I made good use of my new telephoto lens, as you'll see when the book comes out next spring; the postcard pictures are of the siamang, an orang, and various bonobos.

The gorillas split off about 8-10 million years ago. They sure lost the acrobatic skills of their presumed ancestor with the orangs, perhaps because they specialized in a vegetarian niche of low quality food that requires a very long gut and big belly.

About 7 million years ago, we last shared a common ancestor with the chimps and bonobos. The hominids differed, initially, in losing the big canine teeth and in standing upright enough to rearrange the hips. They had a pint-sized brain like the other great apes; the tripling of brain size didn't even begin until the ice ages kicked in about 2-3 million years ago. If only more of those intermediate species had survived—both Neanderthals and, in China, Homo erectus went extinct recently, after our own lineage achieved structured thought, our capacity for long sentences and contingent planning.

Watching any of the four great ape species will, to an extent unmatched by the lesser apes and the monkeys, remind you of people that you know. The chimps and bonobos are considerably more social than gorillas (what with their harem structure that excludes most males) and the orangs (who, as adults in the wild, seldom see one another except for "conjugal visits"). Watching bonobos (essentially the oldest of the chimp subspecies, from the left bank of the Congo), you will see reassuring touches, the arm around the shoulder, kissing, and the grinning "play face."

This overlap with what we had supposed were exclusively human behaviors was one of the surprises of the last few decades of research. Judging from the chimps and bonobos, a lot was in place before the hominid branch split off at 7 million years ago, perhaps even the capacity for simple language (with years of tutoring, they can do about as well as two-year-old kids at understanding a sentence). They may lack structured thought, but so might our big-brained ancestors—at least, until about 50,000 years ago when sustained creativity first appears in the archaeological record. Before then, Homo sapiens wasn't doing much that was any different from the Neanderthals. Conservatism was the rule, not innovation, and the life of the mind was probably rather minimal.

That's why the great apes are so precious to us. Along with the stones and bones of archaeology, these distant cousins are the other small window into our own past. Take your binoculars, to watch those fleeting facial expressions, and try to match them up with people you know.



Alison Gopnik

Perugia, Italy

My summer postcard comes from two weeks in a villa in the Umbrian hills, with a bare hint of Perugia in the background, obscured by the 26 immediate family members in front of it (2 grand-parents, 12 children and spouses, 11 grand-children plus 1 in utero, I'm in the hat).

Its an interesting mix of people, several journalists, writers, artists, professors, and scientists, a lawyer and a manager, plus a motocross racing champion and a jazz-hip-hop fusion rapper. Sort of our own private Gopnik Edge. No e-mail or work or writing for two weeks, just happy, swimming, cooking and eating, with all 26 of us sharing two houses.

But there was inevitably, some thinking, and a tremendous amount of talking, including inevitably a tremendous amount of talking about families.Everyone in this picture is either a child or parent (or both) of someone else in this picture.

And those relations are among the most intense, valuable, rich and complicated experiences they will ever have. What's more millions, billions, of families could provide similar pictures, with similarly rich and complicated stories behind them. Novelists, of course, have made those stories their province, and their was certainly material for a comic novella in the Gopniks in Perugia.

But there is remarkably little abstract thinking about the relations between parents and children. The biological facts of childhood and parenting, and the peculiar dilemmas and conflicts, attachments and responsibilities, they create, which loom so large in literature and experience, and even a two-week family reunion vacation, are practically invisible in philosophy. So this was a good chance for me to talk and think about that set of issues which I'm trying to write about too, even without actually writing.



Hans-Joachim Metzger

Munich, Germany

Dear John Brockman!

Art and science seem to be congruent in that they are endeavouring to create what, previously, has not been there, to make visible what has never been seen, has not yet been seen or, in a way, will always be invisible.

As an artist, I am looking for shapes, forms and objects that are not repeating, re-creating or rendering what is already there. My postcard is showing some of those recently created impossible objects that I call black light objects.

The titles of these pictures (from left to right) are: "Angel, Tectonic", "The Distant Sound", and "The Grand Vehicle".

Since this postcard is offering only limited writing space, forgive me for resorting to some kind of scientifictitious metaphor to explain briefly about the emergence of these pictures.

Usually, taking a picture means photographing through the lens of a camera to the outside. In this case, though, it is actually the other way round. The photograph, so to speak, is being taken through the lens not to the outside but to the inside. Obviously, in order to be able to do this you need a second camera.

Imagine leaving the shutter open for an infinite exposure time, and, joining the two lenses, photographing with one camera what is emerging inside the other. Clearly, what is emerging inside the second camera will become visible to the first camera only when the shutter of the second camera is open.

On the one hand, what we are dealing with here is the well known visual infinity effect that is arising if you place one mirror parallel in front of a second mirror. On the other hand, in the case of the two cameras that, in fact, may be regarded as one single apparatus, an interruption will occur when the exposure time has run out. Of course, one may also imagine both cameras taking pictures one after the other, alternately. It is quite obvious that, without this interruption of the infinite, these objects would never become visible.

The process going on inside this metaphorical device is something happening in complete obscurity because both cameras are, of course, nothing but darkrooms. Consequently, the light making visible these objects can only be black light.

In fact, the pictures of this series are owing their existence to no beam or ray of light whatsoever coming from some so-called reality. To take these pictures I have not been using a camera or some such apparatus consisting of two cameras. To find black light objects, I am working with a computer. The computer is a universal symbolic medium, enabling me to do everything I can do with other media such as, for example, photography. Using the computer, I can even do it twice—like I did with my imaginary two-camera-device.

All the best to Edge.

Hans Joachim Metzger

Irene Pepperberg

Swampscott, Massachusetts

I spent four months traveling nonstop this spring and early summer to a wonderful set of meetings, such as a TedMed conference (presenting incredible information about the interface of technology and medicine—here's a picture of myself, my lab manager and one of our volunteers, plus our youngest parrot who also got to attend!), conferences in Rennes (fascinating material on animal cognition, but during the outbreak of the Iraqi war), Scotland (animal welfare), and Wales (amazing talks on the interface of computers, robots, and animal models for learning), as well as many around the USA (including an symposium on avian behavior in honor of James Watson's 75th birthday that ended with birding with David Sibley). I thus decided to opt for what was to be a relaxing summer near the beach in Swampscott. I'm rethinking the meaning of the word "relaxing" ....and looking ahead to a month in Paris this fall, working at the Ecole Normale Superieure.


Margaret Wertheim

New Mexico

During a trip to New Mexico I visited an incredible chamber for studying plasmas constructed by a young physicist named Christopher Watts at New Mexico Tech. Basically this is an aurora in a bottle—Chris studies the process by which auroras and solar flare form. Its the most incredible device I've seen in a long time—Jules Verne meets the computer age.

My trip to New Mexico Tech was part of a longer sojourn to New Mexico (truly a land of scientific enchantments) which began with teaching at the annual summer science writing workshop with George Johnson and Sandy Blakeslee in Santa Fe. Then on to Socorro to visit Chris Watts plasma physics lab and also NMT's Energetic Materials Research and Testing Center—grand central for the scientific study of blowing things up.

Then it was on to the VLA (the huge array of telescopes where Contact was filmed) and finally ending with a magical visit to Walter de Maria's Lightning Field. We were there on the summer solstice and the whole work seem specifically engineered for that one endlessly lingering sunset. Just as the Mayan's built the great pyramid at Chitchen Itza to capture the one incandescent moment of the spring equinox, so de Maria's artwork may be seen as a fantastical kind of solar observatory. A truly amazing amalgamation of art, technology, and engineering.

Margaret Wertheim

Susan Blackmore

Bristol, England

This summer has been the hottest in England since records began 343 years ago (and that's a good thing when you live here). So I have spent a lot of time working in my garden.

It's nearly three years since I gave up my job (tenure, lecturing, students and everything) to write a textbook on consciousness. So now that it's finished, do I want to go back? Can I stop asking questions about "what it's like to be"?

Of course not.

When I ask "Am I conscious now?" the answer is always "yes". But why?

Surely this tells us something, but what? What is the difference, in brain terms, between those times when I am asking the question and those when I am not?

Is it possible to answer "No"? In other words, is it possible to look into the darkness? William James described this kind of introspection as like "trying to turn up the gas quickly enough to see how the darkness looks." How he would have enjoyed electricity—and the modern equivalent of snatching open the fridge door to see whether the light is always on. And while I'm weeding, I wonder who, or what, is asking all these questions.

Sue Blackmore, August 2003

Marc D. Hauser

Cambridge, Massachusetts


This summer combined work and play and has been highlighted by the arrival of a new daughter from Russia.

I spent time at my field site on the island of Cayo Santiago, Puerto Rico. This island has been home to some 1000 rhesus monkeys for close to 70 years. Everything is quite natural except for some provisioning and the absence of predators. We changed that. Working with a post-doc, we started a new and exciting project using trained eagles to simulate attacks on those poor innocent monkeys.

We used the largest african bird of prey called the crowned eagle (photo attached). The results are wonderful: we are witnessing the real time evolution of an alarm response as the monkeys are producing calls they have never produced, are responding with fear, and seem to innately recognize the call as labeling an avian predator. And what better way to end a day of field work than to come home to a pint-sized pina colada. From Cayo I returned home, spent a few weeks reading, writing, running experiments, and going to a local beach.

We — my wife Lilan, 15 year old daughter Alexandra, and new two year old daughter Sofia — then all travelled to my parent's house in Chamonix, France. The house sits at the base of Mont Blanc, the jewel of the Alps. We hiked , swam in alpine lakes, ate like royalty, and enjoyed the aesthetics that only the French know how to create, but everyone else can enjoy.

New work? Yes. Have begun to go back to classic work in moral philsophy and moral psychology and realize that the time is ripe for the sciences of the mind and brain to make their move. That said, a different approach is needed. It is a view that differs from the hyperational position of law, most of moral philosophy, and moral development, as well as the hyperemotional position of moral philsophers from the British Enlightenment (think Hume) to today's social psychologists. The view I favor has origins in the writings of Adam Smith, Noam Chomsky and John Rawls. It is a view that sees our moral faculty as a suite of intuitions based on principles of action that operate over judgments of permissible, obligatory, and forbidden behaviors. It has a rational flavor, but we are not conscious of its workings. It has an emotional flavor, but emotions
emerge secondarily, once we have computed whether the action is permissible. It thus sits in between the two most common positions, and offers a new way of bringing the mind sciences to bear on the problem, from questions concerning universality and development to how the brain computes such decisions.


Keith Devlin

Siena, Italy

Greetings from Siena, where I just watched one of the Palio races for the first time in the flesh. A few days ago I was in Pisa, and took some time to visit two landmarks dedicated to Leonardo Fibonacci, whose 1202 book "Liber abaci" was responsible for western Europe adopting the Hindu-Arabic number system, thereby preparing the way for the scientific revolution soon

afterwards and thence to the present day dominance of the West in science and technology. The statue dates back to 1863, and was carved by Giovanni Paganucci. There is no evidence that it is anything but a work of pure fiction; no contemporary likeness of Leonardo exists, nor any physical description of him. The street sign is for a stretch of road that runs along the River Arno. After less than a quarter of a mile it becomes the Lungarno Galileo Galilei.

Keith Devlin

Roger Schank

Palm Beach, Florida

For summer, I usually stay at home. I live steps from a beach that is completely empty. Here is a picture I took this morning at 11:30:

A friend visited from Paris the other day and when I took him to the beach he almost fell over, thinking of crowded French seaside resorts in the summer. Each summer I find myself thinking about belief systems and how difficult they are to change.

Why don't people come to Florida in the summer? Why do they go to the Hamptons or Cape Cod? I know the answers that were given when I was a kid. Florida is too hot. People go to the beach to cool off (remember when that was the reason?) So everyone rushed to Coney Island when I was little and packed the beaches there. Now they go to other fancier places but Florida is empty. I feel the need to point our that Air Conditioning is now common place. Nevertheless our streets our empty, our beaches are empty, our restaurants are empty. Seems like paradise to me. (And New York City is hotter today than where I am which is usually true in midsummer.)  

Why are belief systems so hard to change? Whatever most people used to believe, they still believe, and no evidence to the contrary seems to matter. Our Presidents are always wise and just, wars are always for defense, we must support our troops. No facts seem to matter to change a belief system.


Paul C. Davies

New South Wales, Australia

Here is a photo of my recent wedding day, with my new wife Pauline, a science journalist with ABC Radio National. It was taken in our back garden.

I'm shortly off to Seattle, to attend the Foundation for the Future 'Humanity 3000' meeting. I'll also be spending one day in New York! And it will be totally wiped out by filming with the BBC for a Horizon special on time travel. I fly to London that evening for one day, meeting family, then to Venice to lecture at a cultural festival. I'll be making a quick dash to fulfill my childhood dream of visiting the independent country of San Marino, one of only three in the world totally embedded in another nation (do you know the other two?). I have an obsession with geographical trivia.


John Brockman, Editor and Publisher
Russell Weinberger, Associate Publisher
contact: [email protected]
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