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Sunday 30 March 2008 | Print Editionn


In Focus — The Interview

("Week In Review" Sunday Supplement — Back Page)

"SCIENTISTS ARE NATURALLY OPTIMISTIC"

"Los científicos son naturalmente optimistas"

Writer, editor and architect of a great number of the recent years' scientific bestsellers, American John Brockman recounts how the project came about to summon a hundred brilliant minds, mostly scientists, and each year ask provocative questions to synthesize, in a way, contemporary thought. The answers are striking.

By Juana Libedinsky

NEW YORK — "It was July and so hot that you could fry an egg on Park Avenue. I went out to do some errands, driving around the city in an airconditioned taxi when I was distracted by the news on the radio: the war in Iraq was going from bad to worse; Bush was, well, being Bush (and let me clarify that among the many hundreds of science-minded thinkers that I know, I can count three who are Republicans). It was then that I had the idea: the question of the year could only be "What are you optimistic about!".

Sitting in his magnificent office on Central Park, with the St. Patrick's Day parade going by below, John Brockman, a writer, editor and the agent behind nearly every major scientific bestseller in recent years (such as books by Richard Dawkins, Jared Diamond and Nassim Taleb, among others) talks about how the idea came about for his latest compilation entitled, obviously "What are you optimistic about?"

In the book, a good portion of today's most prominent thinkers (musician Brian Eno, artificial intelligence pioneer Marvin Minsky, decoder of the human genome Craig Venter, Nobel laureate George Smoot and writer Ray Kurtzweil, among many others) come up with hopeful answers. Brockman asked specifically that they surprise him with their responses, and they succeeded in doing so.

For example, although world peace and a cure for cancer had a privileged place, many put their chips on seemingly minor issues, such as the survival of friendship, or stories like that of the new children's hospital in London, whose rules stipulate that the cleaners of the exterior glass must wear superhero costumes. The children in bed — many of them seriously ill — delight at seeing Superman or Spiderman hanging a few centimeters from them and, it apparently is also one of the best moments of the week for the cleaners.

In addition, there are unexpected touches of humor, like the opinion of German philosopher Thomas Metzinger, who does not see any country today willing to rescue the ideals of the Enlightenment, based on the democratic values on which civilization depends. But he clarifies that he is optimistic that he will be wrong in this dark prognosis, as he has been so many other times. After all, Metzinger was also strongly opposed to marriage and he confesses that real life has proved him wrong.

All of the responses were originally published at www.edge.org, the website that brings together these great thinkers and of which Brockman is also the publisher.

The Edge Foundation, which is described as the "collective expression of wonder at the living and inanimate world ... an ongoing and thrilling colloquium", by the writer Ian McEwan in The Telegraph, and which, according to The New York Times, "gives today's vision science of tomorrow ", began ten years ago to propose a question that is eventually published in book form. In the website's pages, it is possible to read the material for the next book, to be released in December, whose theme, as always, lends itself to debate: "What have you changed your mind about?"

Brockman has also written and edited books such as By the Late John Brockman, The Third Culture; Digerati: Encounters with the Cyber Elite, The New Humanists: Science at the Edge; Curious Minds: How a Child Becomes a Scientist; and Intelligent Thought: Science versus the Intelligent Design Movement. He is the only person to be profiled on the front page of the Sunday Arts section and the "Science Times" section of The New York Times.

Brockman engaged in a dialog with the The Nation on his extraordinary project:

— How and when did all this begin?

The World Question Center began in 1971 as a conceptual art project by my friend and collaborator the late James Lee Byars. He believed that to arrive at the edge of the world's knowledge, one did not need to go to Harvard, sit in the Widener library and read six million books. Rather, he had another way to achieve a synthesis of contemporary thought: bring together the brightest 100 minds of the moment, lock them in a room and have them ask each other the questions they were asking themselves. As he did not have the funds to bring these people together, what he did instead was to find the phone numbers of the hundred people he considered the most intelligent in the world, and begin to dial. When he explained his project, seventy of them hung up on him immediately. But you learn from failure. Ten years later, I formed what was then called the Reality Club. It was a group that consisted of the leading artists and scientists of the time. We gathered regularly at the New York Academy of Sciences, or at any Chinese restaurant, for conversion with the understanding that the questions are the answers. The popularization of the Internet in the mid-nineties led to a serious implementation of the large design originally conceived by Byars. That was the origin of Edge. On each anniversary edition of Edge I have presented a question, originated by myself or my colleagues, and asked the great thinkers to respond. Other questions for example have been "What do you believe but who cannot prove?" and "What is your dangerous idea?".

— How difficult was it to get the answers for this latest book?

Well, almost all the responses are from scientists or science-minded people, and they are often optimistic by nature. After all, these are people who get up and go to work thinking they can do something good for humanity. It's very contrary to the pessimism traditionally found in typical literary intellectuals, say in the crowd around The New York Review of Books, who seem to think that everything is wrong and will get worse. When I was young, I had one foot in the literary world and the other in the art world, and both took me seriously. But I became increasingly interested in the sciences, and this was driven by the artists I knew and worked with. Robert Rauschenberg suggested that I read books on cosmology and physics, the musician and philosopher John Cage gave me a copy of Norbert Wiener's Cybernetics. And of course everyone was reading to McLuhan, who had the idea that technology would end divisions between people and bring prosperity to all. So that's the path I've been on since then.

— Do you always want to disseminate science suitable for all audiences?

The Edge "Question" books are a part of a non-profit venture and meant to be very accessible to a wide audience. But in terms of my role as an agent, there's a learning curve with regard to the books of a number of the authors I represent. For instance, before reading a book by, say, Marvin Minsky, you need to know the conversation he is involved in in terms of his scientific field. I realize it sounds elitist, but the reality is that very few people do the thinking for everyone else. Most people have never had an idea. They read yesterday's newspapers and assume the ideas of others, as they would hand-me-down clothes. It's not easy to have an idea, but the kind of authors who have big ideas, who are inventing the world, are the kind of people whom I seek to represent.

— But are new ideas in academic journals rather than books?

There was a time in the last century, during 1920's and 30s, in which literary critics became the leading public intellectuals, and that's because they hijacked the word "intellectual" for themselves. It was assumed that literary critics would learn about science and explain it to the public. After all, Darwin and Huxley had been major bestsellers. But this didn't occur. Instead, scientists began to write directly to the public, as well as maintaining a public conversation with their peers through books. The issue with the journals is that many of the newer fields are interdisciplinary, and do not fall within the narrow parameters of academic publications. So a great deal of real science is now published in books, which scientists are writing for colleagues in their own and adjacent fields, and the public has the opportunity of looking over their shoulders.

— What contact do you have with scientists from Argentina?

Almost zero. But I am very interested in the country, which everyone seems to be talking about. And The New York Times recently ran a major piece about Buenos Aires. But once I was a speaker in a series of six evenings and I followed Borges. Can any scientific mind be better than that?

By Juana Libedinsky

The profile

Writer, editor and agent
John Brockman was born on February 16, 1941 in Boston, Massachusetts. Recognized publisher, literary agent and writer specializing in scientific literature, he was educated at Columbia University, is married and has one son (Max, 27 years).

Edge Foundation
In 1973, he founded his own literary agency Brockman, Inc. Later he created the Edge Foundation, a salon of renowned thinkers. His latest book is entitled What are you optimistic about?

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