EDGE 27 — October 14, 1997


THE THIRD CULTURE

"EDGE UNIVERSITY: A PROPOSAL"
John Brockman

It occurs to me that the rich, challenging material that the contributors to EDGE offer week after week can serve as a fertile launch pad for college and university seminars — perhaps an interdisciplinary freshman seminar, perhaps given for course credit. The EDGE editions can be the weekly reading which serves as the basis for explorations of questions raised and subjects and ideas presented by the material. Most of the participants present new ideas — asking the questions they are asking themselves. They have also written books which are being read and studied on campuses by students and faculty alike and which can be assigned as the reading material for the seminar.


THE REALITY CLUB

Comments by Carl Djerassi, Roger Schank, Michael Gazzaniga, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Rod Brooks, Martin Rees, Pattie Maes, Patrick Bateson, Marvin Minsky, Frank Moretti, Howard Gardner, Freeman Dyson, David Gelernter, Steven Pinker, Jared Diamond


EDGE IN THE NEWS

"A few months ago, a group of authors gathered at a country house in Connecticut for a weekend, taking walks in the meadows and woods, dining alfresco and talking about their work. They did not, however, discuss movie rights, the fate of the novel or the current rash of memoirs. They talked about multiple universes, the philosophy of mathematics and the nature of consciousness.

"This was a pastoral salon in which cosmologists, cognitive scientists, linguists and invertebrate paleontologists could discuss the evolution of the the universe and the problem of whether 1 plus 1 equals 2 is a tautology, a logical formula with relevance only to itself, or whether it has a necessary connection with the physical world. It was a meeting at which the authors could consider the question of whether there are questions that are unanswerable, in principle."-

from "Nimble Deal-Maker For Stars Of Science,", by James Gorman, Front Page - "Science Times" Section - The New York Times - 10/14/97
http://www.nytimes.com/yr/mo/day/news/national/sci-literary-agent.html


(3,678 words)


John Brockman, Editor and Publisher | Kip Parent, Webmaster


THE THIRD CULTURE

"EDGE UNIVERSITY: A PROPOSAL"
John Brockman

Thomas De Zengotita, responding in to Howard Gardner's "Education For All Human Beings", notes that "only intellectuals seeking understanding spend serious time doing things like 'just getting enough history and math' so they can have a 'background' for other inquiries. In the absence of exposure to real intellectuals only a very few kids will be inspired to seek understanding in such ways. No technology will take up the slack."

Apropos the Gardner and De Zengotita comments in the last two editions of EDGE, it occurs to me that the rich, challenging material that the contributors to EDGE offer week after week can serve as a fertile launch pad for college and university seminars — perhaps an interdisciplinary freshman seminar, perhaps given for course credit. The EDGE editions can be the weekly reading which serves as the basis for explorations of questions raised and subjects and ideas presented by the material. Most of the participants present new ideas — asking the questions they are asking themselves. They have also written books which are being read and studied on campuses by students and faculty alike and which can be assigned as the reading material for the seminar.

Some examples: George Dyson's presentation on "Darwin Among the Machines" leads to the scrutiny of artificial intelligence and artificial life in relation to the work of Samuel Butler (1835-1902), who faced the same mysteries that permeate these two subjects today. The presentation by Lee Smolin and Stuart Kauffman on "A Possible Solution for the Problem of Time in Quantum Cosmology" is an invitation to discuss evolutionary biology as it relates to concepts of time. Reuben Hersh's thesis in "What is mathematics?" is a lead-in to a study of the collective human consciousness. Brian Goodwin's "A New Science of Qualities" suggests that by studying the work of Goethe as an artist we can regain a balance between the analytical way of knowing and the intuitive way of knowing. The talks by Microsoft scientists Nathan Myhrvold on technology and Charles Simonyi on "Intentional Programming" can be the basis for discussion on the relationship of new technology to human perception. Joseph Traub's talk on "The Unknown and the Unknowable" introduces a central issue of the relation between reality and models of reality.

During the summer, I began discussing this idea with a number of leading thinkers, all of whom are professors at leading universities. I suggested the following:

(1) Syndicate the email version of EDGE editions free of charge to a selected group of colleges and universities to serve as the basis for interdisciplinary seminars perhaps for course credit, or simply to make the ideas and information available to a wide array of students and faculty.

(2) Develop an "EDGE Extranet" for the pilot group of schools — a secure, private network on the Internet to serve as the platform for the interchange of ideas of students and faculty alike within each institution and across the institutions;

(3) Display an edited version of the activities of the school groups on the EDGE Website ().

Below are the responses via email and my recollection of discussions. I present these comments as the beginning of a conversation. I look forward to comments. Feel free to forward this email to your local Provost.....

JB


THE REALITY CLUB

Comments by Carl Djerassi, Roger Schank, Michael Gazzaniga, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Rod Brooks, Martin Rees, Pattie Maes, Patrick Bateson, Marvin Minsky, Frank Moretti, Howard Gardner, Freeman Dyson, David Gelernter, Steven Pinker, Jared Diamond


From Carl Djerassi
Submitted: 9.1.97

Your idea warrants experimentation but I agree that the contacts in the schools will differ from case to case. At Stanford, you should clearly contact the Vice Provost of Sciences and Humanities, who is very interested in new approaches to undergraduate education.

CARL DJERASSI of Stanford University — the scientist who brought you the Pill — is now bringing you "science-in-fiction." His books include Cantor's Dilemma, The Bourbaki Gambit and the forthcoming Menachem's Seed.


From: Roger Schank (discussion)
Submitted: 9.1.97

Approach university librarians. They're the gatekeepers of the ethernet ports in the dorm rooms.

ROGER C. SCHANK is the director of The Institute for Learning Sciences at Northwestern University, where he is John Evans Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science as well as Professor of Psychology and of Education and Social Policy. He is the author of The Creative Attitude: Learning to Ask and Answer the Right Questions, Tell Me A Story, and The Connoisseur's Guide to the Mind.


From: Michael S. Gazzaniga
Submitted: 9.1.97

As to EDGE, I don't understand the following. Where is the commercial value in it? Why give one's thoughts away? I never understood the point of it. Now since you brought profit to the scientist I am sure there is an angle.

MICHAEL GAZZANIGA, one of the world's leading neuroscientists, is Professor of Neurology and Psychology at the University of California at Davis. He is the author of Nature's Mind (Basic), Mind Matters (Houghton Mifflin), and The Social Brain (Basic).


From: Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
Submitted: 9.1.97

The EDGE educational project looks good, although I agree with some of the comments to the effect that if you want this to work as part of course offerings, you need to market the idea, find someone interested enough to prototype a seminar/course based on it, and then deliver the prototype as well as the content .

MIHALY CSIKSZENTMIHALYI (pronounced "chick-SENT-me high"), a Hungarian born polymath and professor of psychology and education at the University of Chicago, has been thinking about the meaning of happiness since a child in wartime Europe. He is the author of several popular books about his theories, the bestselling Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, The Evolving Self: A Psychology For the Third Millennium, and Creativity.


Rod Brooks (Discussion)
Submitted: 9.2.97

MIT offers a freshman seminar during which faculty members work with small groups of students. People like Minsky, Guth, Pinker, Maes, and myself could organize seminars around the weekly EDGE mailings.

ROD BROOKS, a computer scientist, is director of MIT's AI Lab.


From: Martin Rees (Discussion)
Submitted: 9.1.97

"I like the idea as it offers an approach to interdisciplinary thinking. Some of us here at Cambridge have been thinking along these lines with regard to instituting an interdisciplinary seminar."

SIR MARTIN REES is Royal Society Professor at King's College, Cambridge. He was previously Plumian Professor of Astronomy and Experimental Philosophy at Cambridge, having been elected to this chair at the age of thirty, succeeding Fred Hoyle. He has originated many key ideas about cosmology, galaxy formation, quasars and black holes, and has for the last twenty years directed a wide ranging research program at Cambridge's Institute of Astronomy. He is the author of Before the Beginning.


From: Pattie Maes
Submitted: 9.2.97

I think the way to do this is to find faculty who are willing to organize a class around EDGE. That way there is a structured, regular meeting that takes place which ensures that the students really pursue this in depth and for a longer period of time.

PATTIE MAES came to the United States nine years ago to work with Marvin Minsky and Rodney Brooks at the MIT Artificial Intelligence Lab.She is associate professor at MIT's Media Lab and is the founder of her own company, Firefly, a spinoff of the work that she did at the Media Lab.


Patrick Bateson (Discussion)
Submitted: 9.1.97

There is no structure at Cambridge for such a program to fit in with course credit. Also, for Cambridge students, the program would be more suited for graduate students than the undergraduates.

PATRICK BATESON is Provost of King's College, Cambridge. Professor of Ethology at Cambridge. Director of the Sub-Department of Animal Behaviour at Cambridge for ten years, he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of London in 1983 and became Provost of King's College, Cambridge in 1988. He is the co-author of Measuring Behaviour with Paul Martin.


From: Marvin Minsky (Discussion)
Submitted: 9.1.97

Do a one-time email spam of the entire student body of a university.Tell the students that EDGE is a magazine with a subscription price of $800 a year but that they are being offered a free subscription. I bet you'll even get some $800 subscriptions!

MARVIN MINSKY is a mathematician and computer scientist; Toshiba Professor of Media Arts and Sciences at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; cofounder of MIT's Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, Logo Computer Systems, Inc., and Thinking Machines, Inc.; laureate of the Japan Prize (1990), that nation's highest distinction in science and technology; author of eight books, including The Society of Mind.


From: Frank Moretti
Submitted: 9.2.97

I suggest having a face to face meeting with at least three of the desired institutions represented to design a pilot for this Fall with the full-blown launch set for the Spring. Those of us in the pilot could then meet December to decide on the Spring strategy. Some things you can only do face to face! COLUMBIA WOULD BE HAPPY TO PROVIDE THE SITE FOR THE MEETINGS.

FRANK MORETTI, former Associate Headmaster of the Dalton School in New York City, is co-director of the Institute for Learning Technologies at Columbia University.


From: Howard Gardner
Submitted: 9.4.97

Your memos are not falling on deaf ears. I have already been in contact with a house master (who referred me to someone else) and am consulting several cognitive scientists at Harvard. I will let you know what I learn.

HOWARD GARDNER, the major proponent of the theory of multiple intelligences, is Professor of Education at Harvard University and holds research appointments at the Boston Veteran's Administration Medical Center and Boston University School of Medicine. His numerous books include Leading Minds, Frames of Mind, The Mind's New Science: A History of the Cognitive Revolution, To Open Minds, and Extraordinary Minds. He has received both a MacArthur Prize Fellowship and the Louisville Grawemeyer Award.


From: Freeman Dyson (Discussion)
Submitted: 9.3.97

Freeman, now an advisor Ryder College, a small liberal arts school in New Jersey, indicated that students at a school such as Ryder would receive greater benefits from EDGE than students at a top school such as Princeton where the student body tends to be blase.

FREEMAN DYSON is Professor of Physics at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. His professional interests are in mathematics and astronomy. He is the author of Disturbing the Universe, Weapons and Hope, Origins of Life, Infinite in All Directions, and From Eros to Gaia.


From David Gelernter
Submitted: 9.3.97

Relating EDGE to course credit constrains it more than necessary. The EDGE stuff might (also) be a supplement to existing courses, including courses that aren't per se "interdisciplinary" and aren't seminars. (You could make the stuff available to 500 people in a lecture course on "tech & society" just as easily as you could to a 10-student seminar.)

Your comment that "This rich, challenging material can serve as a fertile launch pad for college and university seminars" — is the heart of it, and it strikes me you have a very strong case. You might point out (granted, most people know it) that (1) intellectual, cultural, social implications of science & technology — this is a tremendously important topic, universities know it, students want to study it — future journalists and lawyers & doctors & teachers & academics (as well as future scientists & technologists) need to study it, BUT (2) universities in general don't have a clue about how to teach it. "Science and culture," "the cultural implications of science," "what science means and why it matters," "where is science going?" — most universities have few or zero people who can teach such topics well. Most scientists can't and most humanists can't; there are no standard texts and few acknowledged classics to show the way; demand for this stuff is great and supply is low. The EDGE material potentially plugs an important intellectual hole.

I'd make a short, tight electronic doc that (merely) gets people interested, and email it to a bunch of relevant people at the target colleges. (I'll admit the endorsements [Ed. Note: See "Feedback on EDGE" at } in particular are very impressive, but my guess is that most higher-ups at these universities simply ignore email that's more than a screen's-worth -- but would be fascinated by this idea if they latched on to it.)

DAVID GELERNTER, an Associate Professor of Computer Science at Yale University and adjunct fellow at the Manhattan Institute, is a leading figure in the third generation of Artificial Intelligence scientists, known for his programming language called "Linda" that made it possible to link computers together to work on a single problem. He has since emerged as one of the seminal thinkers in the field known as parallel, or distributed, computing. He is the author of Mirror Worlds, The Muse in the Machine. 1939: The Lost World of the Fair, and Drawing Life.


From: John Maddox
Submitted: 9.5.97

I think it's a good idea that you should make the excellent EDGE site more generally available. However, the knowledge this is happening may make people more self-conscious than they are now. There's also the business of junk e-mail to your contributors from a wider audience and the possibility that statements made might be published out of context (which argues for a "NO COPYING IN OTHER MEDIA" injuction). But with all that said, I'm for the scheme.

SIR JOHN MADDOX, who recently retired having served 23 years as the editor of Nature, is a trained physicist, who has served on a number of Royal Commissions on environmental pollution and genetic manipulation. His books include Revolution in Biology, The Doomsday Syndrome, Beyond the Energy Crisis, and the forthcoming What Remains to be Discovered: The Agenda for Science in the Next Century .


From: Steven Pinker
Submitted: 9.9.97

The EDGE proposal looks great. How to make it available to those who would use it — teachers of advanced undergraduate seminars — is not easy. The users, I think, would be not only the Ivies and large universities, but even more so, the small liberal arts colleges where there are more seminars, discussion, participation on general intellectual issues and less specialization in technical courses. But how to reach them? An ad in the Chronicle or New York Review? Deans of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at various universities? It's not completely clear to me.

STEVEN PINKER is professor in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at MIT; director of the McDonnell-Pew Center for Cognitive Neuroscience at MIT; author of Language Learnability and Language Development, Learnability and Cognition, The Language Instinct, and How the Mind Works .


From: Jared Diamond (Discussion)
Submitted: 10.13.97

When I was an undergraduate at Harvard such a program would fit into a General Education freshman course. At UCLA where I now teach we have special seminars at the higher and undergraduate level. I like the idea and think it would fit well into one of these two categories.

JARED DIAMOND is Professor of Physiology, UCLA Medical School, a MacArthur Fellow, and the author of The Third Chimpanzee (Winner, British Science Book Prize and The Los Angeles Times Book Prize), and Guns, Germs, and Steel: the Fates of Human Societies .




Copyright ©1997 by Edge Foundation, Inc.

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