Edge in the News

THE NEW REPUBLIC [1.10.08]

The film adaptation of English writer Ian McEwan’s prize-winning novel Atonementopened last month to widespread critical acclaim. Winners of the Golden Globes will be announced this weekend, and Atonement sits on top of the field, with the mostnominations of any film. Isaac Chotiner spoke with McEwan about letting go, growing up, and why atheists need to speak out.

Was it hard to watch Atonement be adapted to film by other people? Did you feel possessive?

I’m fairly used to the process. I think this is the fifth or sixth of my stories or novels that have been made into films. I’m sure I’d be possessive if I allowed myself to get involved in the writing of the script. There’s a lot to be said for not doing that. I did it once withThe Innocent and John Schlesinger, and it was a fairly difficult process because everyone--the director, the designers, actors, everyone--had their own ideas and came piling in. And you are suddenly knocked off your perch as the God in this machine. It is better to have someone take a free run at it. But I can’t quite walk away, so I like to stay involved. I like film sets, and I enjoy the collaborative process. I’m not sure if I had the worst of both worlds or the best.

One of the great things about the book is the way you get inside the head of Briony Tallis, a 13-year-old girl. Were you worried that film is a medium in which it is harder to get inside a character’s head?

Well, it is impossible for a movie to give you what a novel can give you, which is the flavor of rolling thoughts and consciousness. But you have to do the best with what you’ve got, which with movies is a high dependence on actors to somehow let us feel the illusion that we can follow a thought process. And I think the casting of Briony with Saoirse Ronan was really astute. She is a very watchful girl, a completely intuitive young actress.

Earlier in your career, you were known as "Ian Macabre.”  Though there is less of what you call the darkness and violence that was marked your stories 25 years ago, your newer work still has a level of intensity and discomfort. I’m thinking particularly of the sex scene in your latest novel, On Chesil Beach.

Some of the dark-hearted stuff from those short stories still lives on, whether it is the beginning of Enduring Love or the scene toward the end of Saturday or even elements of Atonement. But it is bound to change. One passes the usual milestones in life: You have children, you find that whether you like it or not, you have a huge investment in the human project somehow succeeding. You become maybe a little more tolerant as you get older. Pessimism begins to feel something like a badge that you perhaps do not wear so easily. There is something delicious and reckless about the pessimism of being 21. And when you get older you feel maybe a little more delicate and hope that things will flourish. You don’t want to take a stick to it.

I want to read you a quote from James Wood in The New Yorker about Philip Roth’s latest book: “How much of any self is pure invention? Isn't such invention as real to us as reality? But then how much reality can we bear? Roth knows that this kind of inquiry, far from robbing his fiction of reality, provokes an intense desire in his readers to invest his invented characters with solid reality.” A lot of Atonement is about the question of what is real in fiction, and I was curious for your thoughts about literary realism these days.

The kind of fiction I like and the kind of fiction I most often want to write does have its feet on the ground of realism, certainly psychological realism. I have no interest in magical realism and the supernatural--that is really an extension, I guess, of my atheism. I think that the world, as it is, is so difficult to capture that some kind of enactment of the plausibly shared reality that we inhabit is a very difficult task. But it is one that fascinates me. I have just re-read a couple of Saul Bellow novels, Mr. Sammler’s Planet and The Dean’s December. I really get a thrill from his engagement with the momentous task of what it is like to be in the 20th century in Chicago or even Bucharest, what the condition is, what it’s like, how it is now. This is something that modernism shied away from--the pace of things, the solid achievement of weight in your hand. So I remain rather committed to that. But also to what is psychologically real--the small print of consciousness, the corners and vagaries of thinking that when you read them in another writer, and they are done well, you just know they are right. Not only because you had this thought to yourself, but because that way of thinking seems so ineradicably human.

You mentioned Bellow. Who are the writers you are particularly drawn to now, people you have stuck with?

Really, your amazing triptych, one now dead, of Bellow, Roth, and Updike. They have been voices all the way through my writing life, from the time I started writing. I readPortnoy’s ComplaintRabbit Run, and Mr. Sammler, and there was nothing like that happening in Britain or for that matter in Europe, so far as I could tell. It has something to do with a largeness of ambition, a generosity of imagination, and a wicked sense of humor, particularly in Portnoy. It comes back to that kind of realism, with that wish to engage with conditions as they are now, to capture the city or the moment in time. We had nothing so sparkling. So, yes, I have kept faith with those guys.

What are your online habits? Do you surf the web?

Well, I like Edge very much, Arts and Letters is a great resource for me, and then the whole slew of American magazines. I like that tradition—The New Republic, etc. I get them now quite regularly.

Do you read any online reviews?

I don’t read the blogs much. I don’t like the tone-the rather in-your-face road-rage quality of a lot of exchange on the Internet. I don’t like the threads that come out of any given piece of journalism. It seems that when people know they can’t be held accountable, when they don’t have eye contact, it seems to bring out a rather nasty, truculent, aggressive edge that I think slightly doesn’t belong in the world of book reviewing.

 
I just read a quote of yours, “Atheists have as much conscience, possibly more, than people with deep religious convictions,” and I have noticed that recently you have been talking a little more about atheism. You also contributed an essay to a new book calledThe Portable Atheist. What are your thoughts on the “New Atheist” movement, which has gotten so much publicity and sold so many books in the last year or so. Do you think it differs from strains of atheism in the past?

I am a little baffled as to why it is called the “New Atheism.” There is a very long tradition of free thinking, and the arguments made against religion tend to be the same but made over and over again. But I think what has happened is that there have been a number of good, articulate books--Hitchens, Dawkins, Dennett, Sam Harris, and so on. What they have discovered to their own great surprise is that in the United States, and right across the South too, there are an enormous number of people who also think this way. I don’t think they have suddenly been persuaded by this rash of books--the feelings were there anyway--but they didn’t have a voice, they didn’t have a focus. When Hitchens took his book across the Bible Belt and debated with Baptist ministers in churches, there were huge audiences, most of whom, it seems, from when they spoke to him afterwards, were somewhat irritated that the place in the United States that they lived in was called the Bible Belt. I think there was something there that people had not taken into account. Quite heartening really, given that America is meant to be a secular republic with a strong tradition of upholding all freedom of thought.

Do you see religion as ineradicable, or do you think there is a chance to change people’s minds on religion?

I think it is ineradicable, and I think it is a terrible idea to suppress it, too. We have tried that and it joins the list of political oppression. It seems to be fairly deeply stitched into human nature. It seems to be part of all cultures, so I don’t expect it to vanish. And yet at the same time, if it is built into human nature, why are there so many people who don’t believe in it? I think it is important that people with no religious beliefs speak up and speak for what they value. It is a bit of a problem, the title “Atheist”--no one really wants to be defined by what they do not believe in. We haven’t yet settled on a name, but you wouldn’t expect a Baptist minister to go around calling himself a Darwinist. But it is crucial that people who do not have a sky god and don’t have a set of supernatural beliefs assert their belief in moral values and in love and in the transcendence that they might experience in landscape or art or music or sculpture or whatever. Since they do not believe in an afterlife, it makes them give more valence to life itself. The little spark that we do have becomes all the more valuable when you can’t be trading off any moments for eternity.

Xeni Jardin, boingboing [1.9.08]

I've been traveling in Central America for the past few weeks, so I'm late on blogging a number of things -- including this. Each year, EDGE.org's John Brockman asks a new question, and a bunch of tech/sci/internet folks reply. This year's question: What have you changed your mind about?

Science is based on evidence. What happens when the data change? How have scientific findings or arguments changed your mind?


I was one of the 165 participants, and wrote about what I learned from Boing Boing's community experiments, under the guidance of our community manager Teresa Nielsen Hayden: Link to "Online Communities Rot Without Daily Tending By Human Hands."

CAPITAL TIMES (Madison, Wisconsin) [1.9.08]

"What Are You Optimistic About? Today's Leading Thinkers on Why Things Are Good and Getting Better," edited by John Brockman, Harper Perennial, $14.95, 374 pages. 

If that "bah, humbug" mood lingers, ponder the observations of an odd assortment of academics and other intellectuals, who choose to see that mug of hot cider as half full. "What Are You Optimistic About?" knows that Americans have an increasingly deep morale problem, so these 150 essays of hope are an antidote for societal despair. 

Contributors -- quantum physicist David Deutsch of Oxford, former Time magazine editor James Geary, musician/record producer Brian Eno -- tend to use logic, not sap or divine intervention, to make their arguments. "I am a short-term pessimist but a long-term optimist," writes Paul Saffo, technology forecaster at Stanford. "History is on my side, because the cause of today's fashionable pessimism lies much deeper than the unpleasant surprises of the last half-decade."

...

What Are You Optimistic About? QUESTIONS
THE AGE (Melbourne, Australia) [1.9.08]

What Are You Optimistic About?
Ed., John Brockman
Simon & Schuster, $29.95

EVERY YEAR, JOHN Brockman, co-founder of the Edge website (a space for scientists and other "empirical thinkers" to exchange ideas), asks his online community to respond to a question. For the past three years, the results have been compiled for wider dissemination. It's a great idea, but with a self-selecting contributor list, the result is somewhat skewed. The subtitle boasts of "today's leading thinkers" but, strictly speaking, this should be "today's leading scientific thinkers". A more balanced anthology would have more than a smattering of contributors from other fields. Further, the almost 150 contributors are predominantly US-based, limiting the perspective.

It is, nevertheless, full of fascinating discussion. Common themes emerge, such as the coming downfall of religion; increased longevity; and a belief that environmental damage will be redressed if not undone, provided we act immediately. Subjects are not confined to what are traditionally seen as scientific issues - there are also multiple pieces about happiness, morality and democracy.

The definition of optimism given by a contributor, that it is "a way of viewing possible futures with the belief that you can affect things for the better", is a reminder of the need for action to be combined with the sort of deep thinking reflected in this collection.

Read the full article →

boingboing [1.9.08]

I've been traveling in Central America for the past few weeks, so I'm late on blogging a number of things -- including this. Each year, EDGE.org's John Brockman asks a new question, and a bunch of tech/sci/internet folks reply. This year's question: What have you changed your mind about?

Science is based on evidence. What happens when the data change? How have scientific findings or arguments changed your mind?

Link.

I was one of the 165 participants, and wrote about what I learned from Boing Boing's community experiments, under the guidance of our community manager Teresa Nielsen HaydenLink to "Online Communities Rot Without Daily Tending By Human Hands."

Here's a partial link-list of my favorite contributions from others:

Tor NørretrandersW. Daniel HillisRay KurzweilDavid GelernterKai KrauseClay ShirkyJ. Craig VenterSimon Baron-CohenJaron LanierMartin ReesEsther DysonBrian EnoYossi VardiTim O'ReillyChris AndersonRupert Sheldrake,Daniel C. DennettAubrey de GreyNicholas CarrLinda StoneGeorge Dyson,Steven PinkerAlan AldaStewart BrandSherry TurkleRudy Rucker,Freeman DysonDouglas Rushkoff .

SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE [1.8.08]

Honorable mention (links.sfgate.com/ZBZY): It's not a top 10 list. It's not even a top 100. It has nothing to do with fashion or trends or politics or the year's coolest iPod accessories. It is intellectual hotbedEdge.org's annual question, this time a profound doozy: "What have you changed your mind about. Why?"

As of now, 165 of the world's finest minds have responded with some of the most insightful, humbling, fascinating confessions and anecdotes, an intellectual treasure trove of proof that flip-flopping is a very good thing indeed, especially when informed/inspired by facts and shot through with personal experience and laced with mystery and even a little divine insight. Best three or four hours of intense, enlightening reading you can do for the new year. Read it now.

Then flip it over and answer the same question for yourself.

NEWS @ORF.at [1.8.08]

"Flip-Flops" werden im Englischen verächtlich Menschen genannt, die plötzlich ihre Meinung ändern. Was bei Politikern oft als ein Zeichen von Opportunismus interpretiert wird, gehört in der Wissenschaft zum Wesen. Dennoch ist es auch unter Forschern und Forscherinnen nicht üblich, sich öffentlich zu einem Sinneswandel zu bekennen. Genau das haben sie aber nun gemacht. Bereits zum elften Mal hat der New Yorker Literaturagent John Brockman namhaften Wissenschaftlern zum Jahreswechsel knifflige Fragen gestellt. Diesmal lauten sie "Wobei haben Sie Ihre Meinung geändert? Und warum?"

Die Antworten von insgesamt 165 Forschern und Expertinnen sind unterschiedlich und oft amüsant: Der Biologe Richard Dawkins erklärt, warum Meinungswandel kein evolutionärer Nachteil sind; die Philosophin Helena Cronin zeigt, dass es unter Männer zwar mehr Nobelpreisträger gibt, aber auch mehr Trottel; und Anton Zeilinger erzählt von seinem Irrtum, die Quantenphysik einst für "nutzlos" gehalten zu haben. ...

...

SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE [1.8.08]

Today, let's turn things upside down.

10) Top 20 dictators of the world (Parade, links.sfgate.com/ZBZL).

It's like a reality show in hell, a rogue's gallery of the most heartless, insane, power-mad thugs and cretins (all male, natch) this side of Dick Cheney's darkest orgiastic fantasy. Even Vladimir Putin made the list, mostly for the weird beauty of his flat, heartless stare.

9) Top 10 vegetarian-friendly prisons (PETA, links.sfgate.com/ZBZM).

Attention, radical unshowered vegans who've lost all perspective and want to blow up Whole Foods and set fire to shops that sell leather! When they haul your cute, dreadlocked butt to prison, be sure to request one of these fine facilities, where you can serve out your time enjoying low-grade vegetarian gruel, like soy taco crunch in Tennessee and meatless sloppy joes in North Dakota. So helpful!

8) Top 10 food and drink hacks (Lifehacker, links.sfgate.com/ ZBZN).

In which it is revealed that vinegar is quite likely the greatest and most versatile liquid known to humankind, slicing a mango does not have to be a sloppy, sticky mess (unless you are naked and partially drunk and really want it to be), and you can learn how to chill a bottle of white wine in about two minutes, make sexier cocktails with clear ice cubes and use your old plastic CD spindle as a perfect little bagel tote. Didn't know any of that? You're not reading the right blog.

7) Top 10 science revelations (LiveScience, links.sfgate.com/ZBZQ).

Yes, the "peak oil" era is now under way, the American Southeast may very well be facing a brutal 90-year drought as the dry areas get drier and the wet get wetter, a region of ice in Greenland twice the size of the United States has melted, and the World Conservation Union's list of endangered animals now tops 40,000, with more than 200 moving closer to extinction in 2007. And the No. 1 spot, naturally, is climate change itself, now so overwhelmingly omnipresent and ominous, it would take a band of truly troglodytic jackals to deny, reject or otherwise sneer at what the world's scientific and environmental community is desperately trying to tell us.

6) Top 10 climate myth busters (Fox News, links.sfgate.com/ZBZR).

Shut-ins, inbred cultists and global warming deniers rejoice as Fox News' junk science "expert" and Big Tobacco boy toy Steven Milloy cherry-picks a handful of minor studies in an effort to mount the world's shakiest anti-warming argument, all while ignoring mountains of evidence, not the least of which is the recent, dire 3,000-page report from the 113-nation-strong Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

5) Top 10 Christianity-related stories of 2007 (Christianity Today, links.sfgate.com/ZBZS).

In which successful atheist authors get jabbed, Jerry Falwell is not acknowledged as Satan's newest fluffer, and hard-core religious orgs of every stripe celebrate and/or lash out at other religious orgs for either a) not being religious enough, b) not being bigoted enough, c) not hacking away at women's rights, d) not slamming gays or e) all of the above.

4) Top 10 new organisms (Wired, links.sfgate.com/ZBZT).

Hypoallergenic cats. Fluorescent tadpoles. Schizophrenic mice that exhibit Bush-grade hallucinations, paranoia and delusions of grandeur. Alas, no mention of whatever the hell mutant virus is attacking the American brain and causing millions to actually give a damn about how much blow Lindsay Lohan does or whether Jamie Lynn Spears is pregnant. Maybe that's another list.

3) Top 10 astronomy photos of 2007 (Bad Astronomy, links.sfgate.com/ZBZU).

You know what we, as a nation, lack more than anything else in this bitter, Bush-gutted age? No, not more porn-happy YouTube-rip-off sites. It's awe - raw, delicious, mind-bending, awe.

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THE GLOBE AND MAIL [1.8.08]

Even IT gurus have the right to think twice.

This year the online salon Edge.org has drawn a lot of attention for the annual question it put out to a mixture of scientists and artists: What have you changed your mind about?

Contributors range from actor Alan Alda to folk singer Joan Baez, but some of the real gems came from technology visionaries who decided to take a second look at their original visions.

Teach technology if you want to learn: Seth Loyd is a quantum mechanical engineer at MIT, which sounds intimidating, but the author ofProgramming the Universe admits he didn’t really gain self-confidenceabout IT until he became an instructor for students who are probably as smart as he is. “In my feverish attempt to understand analog computers, I constructed a model for a quantum-mechanical analog computer that would operate at the level of individual atoms. This model resulted in one of my best scientific papers,” he says. Even if it’s daunting, assist others with their IT challenges in order to master your own.

Calm down at the keyboard: Linda Stone, a former Microsoft VP, has been doing a lot of research on how users interact with technology and she realized that their attention span had a lot to do with what was going on in their lungs. “In observing others — in their offices, their homes, at cafes — the vast majority of people hold their breath, especially when they first begin responding to e-mail. On cell phones, especially when talking and walking, people tend to hyper-ventilate or overbreathe. Either of these breathing patterns disturbs oxygen and CO2 balance,” she writes. “I’ve changed my mind about how much attention to pay to my breathing patterns and how important it is to remember to breathe when I’m using a computer, PDA or cell phone.”

No application is eternal: As much as we might like our IT problems to end, software designer Karl Krause says applications are temporary solutions. “I used to think ‘software design’ is an art form. I now believe that I was half-right: it is indeed an art, but it has a rather short half-life. Software is merely a performance art – a momentary flash of brilliance, doomed to be overtaken by the next wave, or maybe even by its own sequel. Eaten alive by its successors. And time.”

Don’t treat the world like a computer: Rodney Brooks, the CTO of iRobot Corp. and author of Flesh and Machines, says we have atendency to think of business problems as though they were broken PCs. That’s not always the best approach. “We can think about human memory as data storage and retrieval. And we can think about walking over rough terrain as computing the optimal place to put down each of our feet. But I suspect that somewhere down the line we are going to come up with better, less computational metaphors,” he says. “The entities we use for metaphors may be more complex but the useful ones will lead to simpler explanations.”

THE GLOBE AND MAIL [1.8.08]

Even IT gurus have the right to think twice.

This year the online salon Edge.org has drawn a lot of attention for the annual question it put out to a mixture of scientists and artists: What have you changed your mind about?

Contributors range from actor Alan Alda to folk singer Joan Baez, but some of the real gems came from technology visionaries who decided to take a second look at their original visions.

[Note to Globe and Mail: It's "the mathematician physicist John C. Baez", not his cousin the "folk singer Joan Baez", daughter of the physicist Albert Baez.]

NEWS @ORF.at [1.8.08]

"Flip-Flops" werden im Englischen verächtlich Menschen genannt, die plötzlich ihre Meinung ändern. Was bei Politikern oft als ein Zeichen von Opportunismus interpretiert wird, gehört in der Wissenschaft zum Wesen. Dennoch ist es auch unter Forschern und Forscherinnen nicht üblich, sich öffentlich zu einem Sinneswandel zu bekennen. Genau das haben sie aber nun gemacht. Bereits zum elften Mal hat der New Yorker Literaturagent John Brockman namhaften Wissenschaftlern zum Jahreswechsel knifflige Fragen gestellt. Diesmal lauten sie "Wobei haben Sie Ihre Meinung geändert? Und warum?"

Die Antworten von insgesamt 165 Forschern und Expertinnen sind unterschiedlich und oft amüsant: Der Biologe Richard Dawkins erklärt, warum Meinungswandel kein evolutionärer Nachteil sind; die Philosophin Helena Cronin zeigt, dass es unter Männer zwar mehr Nobelpreisträger gibt, aber auch mehr Trottel; und Anton Zeilinger erzählt von seinem Irrtum, die Quantenphysik einst für "nutzlos" gehalten zu haben. ...

Die Partei der Zweifler; Bei der Frage des Jahres im Onlinemagazin Edge machen sich Wissenschaftler Gedanken Ÿber ihre eigene Fehlbarkeit
SÜDDEUTSCHE ZEITUNG — Munich [1.7.08]

Eines der anregendsten intellektuellen Spiele findet sich jedes Jahr im Januar auf der Website Edge.org, wenn Wissenschaftler und Künstler im "World Question Center" auf die Frage des Jahres antworten. 2007 prügelte man mit Vehemenz auf die Religionen ein, und so klingt schon die Frage für 2008 wie ein erneuter Generalangriff auf die Seligen: "Welche Ihrer Meinungen haben Sie einmal geändert?" Ist die Religion doch der Ort der göttlichen Wahrheit, die sich nicht begründen muss und nicht bezweifelt werden kann. Wenn er einer Partei angehöre, hatte der Agnostiker Camus auch gesagt, dann der des Zweifels. Keine Konfrontation sollte mehr gescheut werden. Die letzte Heimat der Unverzweifelten bleibt dagegen der Glaube. Was Edge angeht, wird diese Erwartung jedoch enttäuscht. ...

Read the full article →

TEMPOS DEL MUNDO (Buenos Aires) [1.7.08]

BUENOS AIRES, jan. 8 (UPI) — On the occasion of the new year, the most sublime thinkers of the world have recognized that, from time to time, they are obliged to rectify their views.

When addressing topics as diverse as evolution man, the laws of physics and differences sex, a group of scientists and philosophers, among Which includes Steven Pinker, Daniel Dennett, Paul Davies and Richard Wrangham, have confessed, all of them Without exception, they have changed their minds, reports Madrimasd.org.

This exhibition of scientific modesty has occurred As a result of the questions, coinciding with New year, annually raised the website edge.org, which has obtained responses from more than 120 of the most Important thinkers in the world.

A recurring theme in the answers is that what distinguishes science from other forms of knowledge and faith is that new ideas based on quickly replace old ones when they are based on evidence produced by tests. Accordingly, in the intellectual scope there is nothing of shameful in recognizing that one has changed positions.

SÜDDEUTSCHE ZEITUNG — Munich [1.7.08]

Eines der anregendsten intellektuellen Spiele findet sich jedes Jahr im Januar auf der Website Edge.org, wenn Wissenschaftler und Künstler im "World Question Center" auf die Frage des Jahres antworten. 2007 prügelte man mit Vehemenz auf die Religionen ein, und so klingt schon die Frage für 2008 wie ein erneuter Generalangriff auf die Seligen: "Welche Ihrer Meinungen haben Sie einmal geändert?" Ist die Religion doch der Ort der göttlichen Wahrheit, die sich nicht begründen muss und nicht bezweifelt werden kann. Wenn er einer Partei angehöre, hatte der Agnostiker Camus auch gesagt, dann der des Zweifels. Keine Konfrontation sollte mehr gescheut werden. Die letzte Heimat der Unverzweifelten bleibt dagegen der Glaube. Was Edge angeht, wird diese Erwartung jedoch enttäuscht. ...

TEMPOS DEL MUNDO (Buenos Aires) [1.7.08]

BUENOS AIRES, jan. 8 (UPI) — On the occasion of the new year, the most sublime thinkers of the world have recognized that, from time to time, they are obliged to rectify their views.

When addressing topics as diverse as evolution man, the laws of physics and differences sex, a group of scientists and philosophers, among Which includes Steven Pinker, Daniel Dennett, Paul Davies and Richard Wrangham, have confessed, all of them Without exception, they have changed their minds, reports Madrimasd.org.

This exhibition of scientific modesty has occurred As a result of the questions, coinciding with New year, annually raised the website edge.org, which has obtained responses from more than 120 of the most Important thinkers in the world.

A recurring theme in the answers is that what distinguishes science from other forms of knowledge and faith is that new ideas based on quickly replace old ones when they are based on evidence produced by tests. Accordingly, in the intellectual scope there is nothing of shameful in recognizing that one has changed positions.

[Spanish Original ...]

THE NEWS & OBSERVER — Raleigh-Durham [1.5.08]

... As in the past, these world-class thinkers have responded to Web site editor John Brockman's impossibly open-ended questions with erudition, imagination and clarity.

In explaining why they have cast aside old assumptions, the respondents' short essays tackle an array of subjects, including the nature of consciousness, the existence of the soul, the course of evolution and whether reason will ultimately triumph over superstition.

Two of the most interesting answers may signal a cease-fire in the gender wars.

In 2005, Harvard President Lawrence *. Summers was assailed for suggesting that innate differences might explain why there are few top women scientists. Now Diane F. Halpern, a psychology professor at Claremont Mc-Kenna College and a self-described "feminist," says Summers was onto something.

"There are real, and in some cases sizable, sex differences with respect to cognitive abilities," she writes.

Her views are echoed by Helena Cronin, a philosopher at the London School of Economics.

"Females," she writes, "are much of a muchness, clustering around the mean." With men, "the variance — the difference between the most and the least, the best and the worst — can be vast." Translation: There may be fewer female geniuses in certain fields, but there are also fewer female morons...

IL GIORNALE (Milan) [1.5.08]

What is the coolest online forum, one where scientists and great minds from all over the world exchange opinions and ideas, and the one that keeps the scientific debate alive? Almost certainly it’s edge.org, an American website whose most ardent supporters include, to quote some of the best known, Richard Dawkins, the famous and controversial evolutionary biologist and author of The Selfish Gene; Brian Eno, the visionary music producer; psychologist Steven Pinker; and physicists like Alan Guth or Gino Segré, who are changing the present vision of the universe. This where you’ll run into debates that count, thanks also to a device that has started a cultural trend: every year edge.org asks an artful question that the big brains who haunt its electronic pages are invited to answer. This year’s question is: What have you changed your mind about? Why?

The mea culpa flocked in in great numbers and from prestigious sources, (more than a hundred in a few days), revealing that the greatest minds are changing their opinions on a lot of subjects, from the expansion of the universe to evolution, from the meaning of science to the workings of the human brain through the value of the Roman Empire in front of the barbarians.

THE NEWS & OBSERVER — Raleigh-Durham [1.5.08]

... As in the past, these world-class thinkers have responded to Web site editor John Brockman's impossibly open-ended questions with erudition, imagination and clarity.

In explaining why they have cast aside old assumptions, the respondents' short essays tackle an array of subjects, including the nature of consciousness, the existence of the soul, the course of evolution and whether reason will ultimately triumph over superstition.

Two of the most interesting answers may signal a cease-fire in the gender wars.

In 2005, Harvard President Lawrence *. Summers was assailed for suggesting that innate differences might explain why there are few top women scientists. Now Diane F. Halpern, a psychology professor at Claremont Mc-Kenna College and a self-described "feminist," says Summers was onto something.

"There are real, and in some cases sizable, sex differences with respect to cognitive abilities," she writes.

Her views are echoed by Helena Cronin, a philosopher at the London School of Economics.

"Females," she writes, "are much of a muchness, clustering around the mean." With men, "the variance — the difference between the most and the least, the best and the worst — can be vast." Translation: There may be fewer female geniuses in certain fields, but there are also fewer female morons...

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IL GIORNALE (Genoa) [1.5.08]

Qual è il forum on line più cool su cui si scambiano pareri e idee scienziati e cervelloni di tutto il mondo, quello che mantiene vivo il dibattito scientifico? Quasi sicuramente Edge.org, sito britannico che ha tra i supporter più accesi, tanto per citare qualcuno tra i notissimi, Richard Dawkins, il famoso e discusso zoologo autore de Il gene egoista, Brian Eno, produttore visionario di musica contemporanea, lo psicologo Steven Pinker, oppure fisici come Alan Guth (uno di quelli che sta cambiando l’attuale visione della storia dell’universo) o Gino Segrè. Da lì passano molti dei dibattiti che contano, merito anche di un escamotage, con le caratteristiche del tormentone colto: ogni anno Edge.org pone un quesito malizioso a cui gli intellettualoni, che compulsano le sue pagine elettroniche, sono chiamati a rispondere. Quello di quest’anno è: «Su che cosa avete cambiato idea? E perché».
Un modo garbato di spingere i ricercatori, che lo utilizzano e sostengono, ad ammettere i propri errori a partire da un motto: «Quando pensare modifica la tua opinione è filosofia, quando è dio che ti fa cambiare idea è fede, quando i fatti ti fanno vedere le cose in maniera diversa questa è scienza».
I quesiti posti negli anni precedenti si erano già spinti sul filo della provocazione (nel 2006 la domanda era stata «qual è l’idea più pericolosa in circolazione?»), ma non avevano mai coinvolto così sul personale intellettuali e ricercatori. Forse per questo i mea culpa sono arrivati numerosissimi e prestigiosi (siamo già oltre il centinaio in pochi giorni), rivelando che le migliori teste pensanti stanno cambiando parere su un sacco di cose, dall’espansione dell’universo all’evoluzione, dal senso della scienza al funzionamento del cervello umano, passando per il valore dell’Impero romano rispetto alle civiltà barbariche. E in alcuni casi il «contrordine compagni scienziati» bordeggia tra lo stupefacente e l’iconoclastia.
Per fare qualche esempio, un antropologo come Richard Wrangham, noto per le sue teorie sulle origini della violenza tra gli umani (ha scritto Demonic Males: apes and the origins of human violence) ripensa le sue idee: «Pensavo che alla base dell’evoluzione umana ci fosse l’uccidere e mangiare carne, adesso penso che ci sia il fatto di cucinare il cibo. Che questo ci abbia differenziato dai primati». Invece un biologo evoluzionista di fama come Mark Pagel ha cambiato idea sul concetto di razza, che secondo lui non deve più essere un tabù, anche nella sua applicazione nei confronti dell’essere umano. A convincerlo di questo fatto sono stati gli ultimi studi sul genoma della nostra specie: «Ci accomuna il 99,5 per cento del patrimonio genetico, non il 99,9 come si credeva in passato... se pensiamo che con lo scimpanzé la somiglianza è del 98,5 per cento... Questo non significa affatto che un gruppo etnico sia superiore all’altro, ma solo che ha senso discutere di differenze genetiche tra le popolazioni».
Come si vede, tesi espresse con moderazione ma comunque dirompenti, visto il putiferio provocato da espressioni meno felici, ma basate sugli stessi dati, di un premio Nobel come James Dewey Watson (scopritore del DNA e recentemente aggredito, a ragione, dai media inglesi per una serie di dichiarazioni razziste di dubbio gusto e attendibilità).

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Daniel Gilbert, THE WALL STREET JOURNAL [1.4.08]

CULTURE
Change of Mind Could Spur A Hardening of the Heart
• EDGE -- JAN. 4

When scientists and other prominent intellectuals change their mind about important things, their new outlook often is gloomier.

That, at least, is the theme of responses to a survey conducted by online science-and-culture publication the Edge, which asked some influential thinkers: "What have you changed your mind about? Why?" ... d

...Fittingly, Harvard University psychologist Daniel Gilbert says he has changed his mind about the benefits of changing one's mind. In 2002, a study showed him that people are more satisfied with irrevocable decisions than with ones they can reverse. Acting on the data, he proposed to his now-wife. "It turned out that the data were right: I love my wife more than I loved my girlfriend."

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