Edge in the News

Upside Magazine [2.22.98]

Chronicler of the digerati, John Brockman, handpicked the best of breed at last week's Monterey TED(technology, entertainment, design) conference to attend his yearly soir?e, where technology's philosopher-kings mused on all things Internet, multimedia and business.

Science [2.12.98]

"Science" is a lofty term. The word suggests a process of uncommon rationality, inspired observation, and near-saintly tolerance for failure. More often than not, that's what we get from science. The term "science" also entails people aiming high. Science has traditionally accepted the smartest students, the most committed and self-sacrificing researchers, and the cleanest money--that is, money with the fewest political strings attached. In both theory and practice, science in this century has been perceived as a noble endeavor.

Yet science has always been a bit outside society's inner circle. The cultural center of Western civilization has pivoted around the arts, with science orbiting at a safe distance. When we say "culture," we think of books, music, or painting. Since 1937 the United States has anointed a national poet laureate but never a scientist laureate. Popular opinion has held that our era will be remembered for great art, such as jazz. Therefore, musicians are esteemed. Novelists are hip. Film directors are cool. Scientists, on the other hand, are ...nerds.

How ironic, then, that while science sat in the cultural backseat, its steady output of wonderful products--radio, TV, and computer chips--furiously bred a pop culture based on the arts. The more science succeeded in creating an intensely mediated environment, the more it receded culturally.

The only reason to drag up this old rivalry between the two cultures is that recently something surprising happened: A third culture emerged. It's hard to pinpoint exactly when it happened, but it's clear that computers had a lot to do with it. What's not clear yet is what this new culture means to the original two.

This new third culture is an offspring of science. It's a pop culture based in technology, for technology. Call it nerd culture. For the last two decades, as technology supersaturated our cultural environment, the gravity of technology simply became too hard to ignore. For this current generation of Nintendo kids, their technology is their culture. When they reached the point (as every generation of youth does) of creating the current fads, the next funny thing happened: Nerds became cool.

Nerds now grace the cover of Time and Newsweek. They are heroes in movies and Man of the Year. Indeed, more people wanna be Bill Gates than wanna be Bill Clinton. Publishers have discovered that cool nerds and cool science can sell magazines to a jaded and weary audience. Sometimes it seems as if technology itself is the star, as it is in many special-effects movies. There's jargon, too. Cultural centers radiate new language; technology is a supernova of slang and idioms swelling the English language. Nerds have contributed so many new words--most originating in science--that dictionaries can't track them fast enough.

This cultural realignment is more than the wisp of fashion, and it is more than a mere celebration of engineering. How is it different? The purpose of science is to pursue the truth of the universe. Likewise, the aim of the arts is to express the human condition. (Yes, there's plenty of overlap.) Nerd culture strays from both of these. While nerd culture deeply honors the rigor of the scientific method, its thrust is not pursuing truth, but pursuing novelty. "New," "improved," "different" are key attributes for this technological culture. At the same time, while nerd culture acknowledges the starting point of the human condition, its hope is not expression, but experience. For the new culture, a trip into virtual reality is far more significant than remembering Proust.

Outlined in the same broad strokes, we can say that the purpose of nerdism, then, is to create novelties as a means to truth and experience. In the third culture, the way to settle the question of how the mind works is to build a working mind. Scientists would measure and test a mind; artists would contemplate and abstract it. Nerds would manufacture one. Creation, rather than creativity, is the preferred mode of action. One would expect to see frenzied, messianic attempts to make stuff, to have creation race ahead of understanding, and this we see already. In the emerging nerd culture a question is framed so that the answer will usually be a new technology.

The third culture creates new tools faster than new theories, because tools lead to novel discoveries quicker than theories do. The third culture has little respect for scientific credentials because while credentials may imply greater understanding, they don't imply greater innovation. The third culture will favor the irrational if it brings options and possibilities, because new experiences trump rational proof.

If this sounds like the worst of pop science, in many ways it is. But it is also worth noting how deeply traditional science swirls through this breed. A lot of first-class peer-reviewed science supports nerdism. The term "third culture" was first coined by science historian C. P. Snow. Snow originated the concept of dueling cultures in his famous book, The Two Cultures.1 But in an overlooked second edition to the book published in 1964, he introduced the notion of a "third culture." Snow imagined a culture where literary intellectuals conversed directly with scientists. This never really happened. John Brockman, a literary agent to many bright scientists, resurrected and amended Snow's term. Brockman's third culture meant a streetwise science culture, one where working scientists communicated directly with lay people, and the lay challenged them back. This was a peerage culture, a peerage that network technology encouraged.

But the most striking aspect of this new culture was its immediacy. "Unlike previous intellectual pursuits," Brockman writes, "the achievements of the third culture are not the marginal disputes of a quarrelsome mandarin class: They will affect the lives of everybody on the planet."2 Technology is simply more relevant than footnotes.

There are other reasons why technology has seized control of the culture. First, the complexity of off-the-shelf discount computers has reached a point where we can ask interesting questions such as: What is reality? What is life? What is consciousness? and get answers we've never heard before. These questions, of course, are the same ones that natural philosophers and scientists of the first two cultures have been asking for centuries. Nerds get new answers to these ancient and compelling questions not by rehashing Plato or by carefully setting up controlled experiments but by trying to create an artificial reality, an artificial life, an artificial consciousness--and then plunging themselves into it.

Despite the cartoon rendition I've just sketched, the nerd way is a third way of doing science. Classical science is a conversation between theory and experiment. A scientist can start at either end--with theory or experiment--but progress usually demands the union of both a theory to make sense of the experiments and data to verify the theory. Technological novelties such as computer models are neither here nor there. A really good dynamic computer model--of the global atmosphere, for example--is like a theory that throws off data, or data with a built-in theory. It's easy to see why such technological worlds are regarded with such wariness by science--they seem corrupted coming and going. But in fact, these models yield a third kind of truth, an experiential synthesis--a parallel existence, so to speak. A few years ago when Tom Ray, a biologist turned nerd, created a digital habitat in a small computer and then loosed simple digital organisms in it to procreate, mutate, and evolve, he was no longer merely modeling evolution or collecting data. Instead, Ray had created a wholly new and novel example of real evolution. That's nerd science. As models and networked simulations take on further complexity and presence, their role in science will likewise expand and the influence of their nerd creators increase.

Not the least because technological novelty is readily accessible to everyone. Any motivated 19-year-old can buy a PC that is fast enough to create something we have not seen before. The nerds who lovingly rendered the virtual dinosaurs in the movie Jurassic Park, by creating a complete muscle-clad skeleton moving beneath virtual skin, discovered a few things about dinosaur locomotion and visualized dinosaurs in motion in a way no paleontologist had done before. It is this easy, noncertified expertise and the unbelievably cheap access to increasingly powerful technology that is also driving nerd science.

Thomas Edison, the founder of Science magazine, was a nerd if ever there was one. Edison--lacking any formal degree, hankering to make his own tools, and possessing a "just do it" attitude--fits the profile of a nerd. Edison held brave, if not cranky, theories, yet nothing was as valuable to him as a working "demo" of an invention. He commonly stayed up all night to hack together contraptions, powered by grand entrepreneurial visions (another hallmark of nerds), yet he didn't shirk from doing systematic scientific research. One feels certain that Edison would have been at home with computers and the Web and all the other techno-paraphernalia now crowding the labs of science.

Techno-culture is not just an American phenomenon, either. The third culture is as international as science. As large numbers of the world's population move into the global middle class, they share the ingredients needed for the third culture: science in schools; access to cheap, hi-tech goods; media saturation; and most important, familiarity with other nerds and nerd culture. I've met Polish nerds, Indian nerds, Norwegian nerds, and Brazilian nerds. Not one of them would have thought of themselves as "scientists." Yet each of them was actively engaged in the systematic discovery of our universe.

As nerds flourish, science may still not get the respect it deserves. But clearly, classical science will have to thrive in order for the third culture to thrive, since technology is so derivative of the scientific process. The question I would like to posit is: If the culture of technology should dominate our era, how do we pay attention to science? For although science may feed technology, technology is steadily changing how we do science, how we think of science, and what it means to be a scientist. Tools have always done this, but in the last few decades our tools have taken over. The status of the technologist is ascending because for now, and for the foreseeable future, we have more to learn from making new tools than we do from making new concepts or new measurements.

As the eminent physicist Freeman Dyson points out, "The effect of concept-driven revolution is to explain old things in new ways. The effect of tool-driven revolution is to discover new things that have to be explained" (p. 50 ).3 We are solidly in the tool-making era of endlessly creating new things to explain.

While science and art generate truth and beauty, technology generates opportunities: new things to explain; new ways of expression; new media of communications; and, if we are honest, new forms of destruction. Indeed, raw opportunity may be the only thing of lasting value that technology provides us. It's not going to solve our social ills, or bring meaning to our lives. For those, we need the other two cultures. What it does bring us--and this is sufficient--are possibilities.

Technology now has its own culture, the third culture, the possibility culture, the culture of nerds--a culture that is starting to go global and mainstream simultaneously. The culture of science, so long in the shadow of the culture of art, now has another orientation to contend with, one grown from its own rib. It remains to be seen how the lofty, noble endeavor of science deals with the rogue vernacular of technology, but for the moment, the nerds of the third culture are rising.

E-Mail Messages Of Scientific Stars Are Required Reading In Harvard U. Course
The Chronicle of Higher Education [2.11.98]

Some undergraduates at Harvard University are reading the e-mail messages of world-renowned scientists and cultural thinkers this semester as part of an introductory science course.

The people behind the e-mail messages are contributors to Edge, a group of intellectuals who use the Internet to discuss the social implications of science and technology. The use of the e-mail in the Harvard class is an experiment to test whether their exchanges can be integrated into college courses.

Anyone on the Internet can get a taste of the Edge discussions by visiting the group's World-Wide Web site. The Harvard students, however, are subscribers to the group's e-mail newsletter, which is distributed every few weeks and contains e-mail messages, essays, and queries from Edge contributors.

"The idea is to bring students up to speed on the latest thoughts" of top scientists, says Marc D. Hauser, an anthropology professor at Harvard and an Edge contributor. He subscribed his students to the newsletter as part of " Human Behavioral Biology," a course he teaches with another anthropology professor, Irven DeVore.

Using Edge material seemed ideal, Dr. Hauser says, because of the range of topics that members of the group discuss. A few weeks ago, for example, the newsletter featured a talk with Patti Maes, an artificial-life researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Media Lab. Other contributors have included Richard Dawkins, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Oxford who wrote Climbing Mount Improbable (W.W. Norton, 1996), and Steven Pinker, an M.I.T. psychologist and the author of How the Mind Works (Norton, 1997).

John Brockman, a prolific author and literary agent for scores of writers on science and technology, founded Edge after he wrote The Third Culture: Beyond the Scientific Revolution (Simon & Schuster, 1995). The book argues that today's intellectual luminaries are "scientists and other thinkers" who are "rendering visible the deeper meanings of our lives." He decided to open an e-mail salon for those "Third Culture" thinkers, people who, in his estimation, bridge the worlds of literary theorists and traditional scientists.

Mr. Brockman says he has wanted to expose college students to the group's e-mail messages for some time. He has dubbed the concept "Edge University," and hopes that if the Harvard experiment works, professors from around the world will come on board. "E-mail lays bare what people working in these areas really think."

The Harvard biology course enrolls about 500 undergraduates, who each week attend lectures as a whole and then meet in groups of 20 for discussions. When the Edge e-mail messages relate to course readings or lectures, they are integrated into those discussions. Because the course is introductory and interdisciplinary, Dr. Hauser expects Edge's exchanges to intersect often with what students are learning in class.

Already, Dr. Hauser says, after mentioning the Edge discussions in one of his lectures, "I hear students in the coffee shops yapping away. It is very exciting."

Dr. Hauser acknowledges that he could simply direct his students to the Web site each week, but he says the students respond better to the immediacy of e-mail. And, he argues, a thread of e-mail messages is more likely to be read as a discussion than is the drier, impersonal content of a book. As he puts it, "E-mail lays bare what people working in these areas really think." Soon, Dr. Hauser hopes, the students will be asking Edge contributors about material they have posted.

"E-mail lays bare what people working in these areas really think."

Creating that level of interaction with the members, however, will get tricky. Mr. Brockman, Edge's founder, keeps distractions on the newsletter to a minimum by filtering out irrelevant messages from subscribers before he distributes them. So instead of posting messages directly to subscribers of the Edge newsletter, the students will send their questions to Dr. Hauser and his research assistants, who will compile and forward them to Mr. Brockman. Mr. Brockman will then ask contributors for responses, which will be relayed back to the students through Dr. Hauser.

If Edge University catches on at other colleges, Mr. Brockman envisions operating it through a network of participating professors, who would forward the Edge newsletter to their students. He also says that a parallel e-mail discussion list could be created to allow students around the world to debate issues raised in the newsletters.

In e-mail messages that Mr. Brockman has posted on the Web site, Edge contributors have praised the idea of reaching out to students.

"The Edge material potentially plugs an important intellectual hole," wrote David Gelernter, a computer scientist at Yale University who is known for his critiques of technology's influence on society. Understanding the implications of science and technology "is a tremendously important topic ... universities know it, students want to study it," he continued. But, he added, "universities in general don't have a clue about how to teach it."

Also see: An excerpt from John Brockman's 1995 book, The Third Culture 6/16/95

Copyright 1998, The Chronicle of Higher Education. Posted with permission on EDGE. This article may not be published, reposted, or redistributed without permission from The Chronicle.

LISA GUERNSEY writes about information technology for The Chronicle and manages its on-line information technology section.

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The New Scientist [2.6.98]

Big, deep and ambitious questions — questions that suggest that science is finally edging into the domain of philosophy and religion.....breathtaking in scope. Keep watching The World Question Center.

Trandsurfer der Wissenschaft
De Zeit [1.28.98]

An extraordinary Web site.

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Suite 101 [1.18.98]

An extraordinary Web site.

Atlantic Unbound [1.7.98]

In 1971, after identifying what he thought to be the hundred most brilliant minds in the world, the late James Lee Byars called each one of them, asked what questions they had been asking themselves recently, and wondered out loud if they'd be interested in getting together to share their ponderings with others. The result: seventy people hung up on him. Now, twenty-seven years later, Byars's dream has come true online.

John Brockman -- noted author, digital impresario, and longtime friend of Byars's -- has posted on his Web site, Edge, dozens of penetrating questions submitted by "the most subtle sensibilities" of today's "third culture" (Brockman's term for the scientists and other researchers who "are taking the place of the traditional intellectual in rendering visible the deeper meaning of our lives"). The result is a site that has raised electronic discourse on the Web to a whole new level and recalls the origins of the Internet as a tool to facilitate unhampered communication among scientists and academic researchers.

The Reality ClubThe site regularly features new essays and book excerpts by noted scientific thinkers. For instance, mathematican turned cognitive neuropsychologist Stanislaus Dehaene recently offered his paper, "What Are Numbers, Really? A Cerebral Basis For Numbers Sense." That Edge makes available Dehaene's paper is not particularly noteworthy; the quality of response the paper has received, however, is. Such varied and provocative thinkers as M.I.T. cognitive neuroscientist Steven Pinker, Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner, and science writer Margaret Wertheim, among others who have been invited by Brockman to participate, have all responded to Dehaene's paper in the form of posts to an electronic message board. The tone and substance of these posts are thoughtful, challenging, and supportive. Genuine learning seems to be going on here, especially for those whose work is being critiqued. George Dyson, who recently had a book excerpt of his discussed, responded in the electronic forum with, "Many thanks to those who contributed such a fascinating and informed response," before launching into a trenchant eight-paragraph follow up to readers' observations and questions. One would be hard pressed to justify an expensive academic conference after reading the stimulating exchange at Edge. James Lee Byars must be smiling somewhere.

Stewart Brand, Feed [1.4.98]

This special feature marks the first collaboration between FEED and Edge, John Brockman's invitation-only Internet forum, where hundreds of the world's leading scientists and thinkers share their thoughts on issues ranging from the meaning of numbers to genetics to affirmative action. Readers can visit the Edge site for even more nominations, and an post their own suggestions in the Loop. — The Editors 

Richard Dawkins, Feed [1.4.98]

This special feature marks the first collaboration between FEED and Edge, John Brockman's invitation-only Internet forum, where hundreds of the world's leading scientists and thinkers share their thoughts on issues ranging from the meaning of numbers to genetics to affirmative action. Readers can visit the Edge site for even more nominations, and an post their own suggestions in the Loop. — The Editors 

Joseph Traub, Feed [1.4.98]

This special feature marks the first collaboration between FEED and Edge, John Brockman's invitation-only Internet forum, where hundreds of the world's leading scientists and thinkers share their thoughts on issues ranging from the meaning of numbers to genetics to affirmative action. Readers can visit the Edge site for even more nominations, and an post their own suggestions in the Loop. — The Editors 

Salon [1.4.98]

The list makes for an enjoyable read — if you can get over the participants' utter inability to remain within the question's 2000-year bounds. Suggesting that the most important invention of this era is the spirit of rebellion against arbitrary rules.

Newsweek.com [1.3.98]

Was the light bulb more important than the pill? An online gathering of scientists nominates the most important inventions of the past 2,000 years. Some of their choices might surprise you.

Newsweek on Air — Related Audio

Interview by David Alpern

The Independent [12.30.97]

The answer to life and the universe? Well, that depends on the question The new year is traditionally a time for the imperative. I will lose five kilos; control my temper better; learn the bassoon; enhance my homepage with Java; whatever. This year, why not take a break and shift to the interrogative instead. Don't resolve. Question. Don't focus on what you're not doing, but look at what you don't know. Ask yourself a few questions to which you would really like answers. They can be questions about anything in the world ó one of the advantages of questions over resolutions is that you don't have to limit them to the personal. That said, though, the questions will be personal too; what you want to know says a lot about you. This suggestion is inspired by a parlour game on the world wide web. Edge (http://www.edge.org) is a sort of salon run by John Brockman, a literary agent and writer who went a long way towards cornering the market in scientist-writers during the post-Stephen Hawking science-writing boom. For the past year it has been home to often lively, sometimes obscure and almost always ambitious discussions about emerging insights into the sciences and the new digital world. It is a sort of ongoing digital Start the Week, with more nuts and bolts and less Melvyn Bragg.

For Edge's first anniversary, Brockman asked everyone who contributes ó an in-crowd of his clients, various other scientists and science writers and a selection of the "digerati", by which is meant people who discourse on new communication technologies with some sort of authority ó to send him the question that mattered most to them. For anyone with an interest in what science and technology have to offer humanity the result is provocative, not only in the questions this reasonably influential bunch is asking itself, but also in those it passes over.

Many of the questions are firmly centred in the questioner's own research, sometimes so much so that they seem reasonably obscure to anyone outside the discipline involved. Steven Pinker, author of How the mind works, asks a question about one detail of that working: "How does the brain represent the meaning of a sentence". Alan Guth, the man who dreamt up the notion of cosmic inflation as an explanation for the evenness, and much of the bigness, of the Big Bang, asks how we can know which sorts of universe are more probable than others.

Some of these insider questions are incisive. Richard Dawkins cuts to the heart of his own work by asking "What might a second specimen of the phenomenon that we call life look like?" Like geology, biology is a one-off science: there is only one Earth, and all life on it is one family, with a common ancestor. Only by studying other lifes elsewhere can we come to understand how much of life is necessarily the way that it is and how much is just the way things are on Earth. Life forms elsewhere may be hard to find, but probably easier to make sense of than Guth's alternative universes.

Various Edgies asked after these aliens, wondering whether we would recognise them if we found them (good question) and what they would mean for established religion. Others wondered if we might not build them ourselves. A range of questions, mostly asked by people who work in the catch-all field of "complexity", effectively ask what is special about arrangements of matter that are capable of agency, and can we create new ones, possibly using computers?

An allied question, and possibly the most interesting of the bunch, comes from William Calvin, a theoretical neurophysiologist (and an amateur climatologist too, but that's another story). "How will minds expand, once we understand how the brain makes mind?" Part of this question's strength is in its breadth. You can treat the question as being about psychoactive drugs, or computer enhancements, or new teaching techniques, or whatever you like. But it is equally impressive in its scope.

Consider an analogue from history. Before we understood how cells make proteins, we could not make any of them ourselves, and had to make do with those nature provided. Now we do understand. We use designer proteins for many medical purposes ó and will soon use them for a vast range of technological and agricultural ends. If we can understand how brains produce thinking, the increase in possibilities might be just as large, and far more personal. Asking us to think about how we use those new possibilities asks us about our moral and social worlds as well as our physical and intellectual areas of interest.

In bridging this gap between intellect and right action, Calvin achieves something that most of the Edgies do not. Some of them ask questions about science; others ask about its implications, and more generally about how to better the world. Very few found a question that covered both. It is not clear whether those posing the pure science questions actually value those questions more than they do political and social questions, or whether they just, rather realistically, accept that while their view on what matters in science is interesting their wider views might be less so. But it is clear that the questions about how to better the world were asked from an intriguing set of perspectives.

Anyone who thinks that scientists and their fellow travellers are uninterested in religion will be in for a surprise. While there are no questions about God and some negativity about organised religion ó David Gelernter, computer scientist, cultural critic and Unabomber victim asks "When will the nation's leading intellectuals come clean and admit that Biblical doctrine (on women, nature, homosexuality, the absolute nature of moral truth and lots of other topics) makes them cringe and they are henceforth not Jews and not Christians, and the hell with old time religion?" ó there is quite a lot about the need for new spiritual values.

Some of these questions are more overtly religious than others, but the plaintive requests for a more long term approach to the world and its resources, like Stewart Brand's "How do we make long-term thinking automatic and common instead of difficult and rare?" seem much of a piece with the more overtly spiritual, if rather instrumentalist, question posed by Colin Tudge, one of Britain's best science writers: "Can we devise a religion for the 21st century and beyond that is plausible and yet avoids banality ó one that people see the need for? What would it be like?" And the cosmologists often sound religious anyway; John Barrow, professor of astronomy at the University of Sussex, asks: "Is the Universe a great mechanism, a great computation, a great symmetry, a great accident, or a great thought?"

But while they acknowledge the spiritual, these seekers after truth ignore many more earthly and more pressing problems. No one asks how to cure cancer, or how many Brits are going to die of mad cow disease. No questions bear directly on the development of the Third World, or on gender equality, or on poverty. Some questions doubtless have such concerns at their heart, but they tend to be phrased in rather universalist, abstract language. There are social concerns here, but they are largely couched in terms of individuals and biological; have we evolved to be prejudiced, or murderous, or capable of only some sorts of intellectual endeavour?

It should not be surprising that 100 intellectuals discoursing on a website end up a little detached from the real world. But that detachment underscores what some of the questioners were asking themselves: how do we get science to do good? As yet, we do not know. Science, at this sort of level, is still very much an intellectual and personal set of questions, not a social one. We are quite good at getting science-based technology to make money, but we are a long way from understanding how to make it responsive to people's desires, needs and goals.

The question posed by Steven Rose, professor of biology at the Open University, is: "How to ensure that we develop sciences and technologies that serve the people, are open to democratic scrutiny and which assist rather than hinder humans to live harmoniously with the rest of nature". It is a specialist's way of asking one of the best questions of all: how can I make things better, not just for myself, but for everything and everyone? If that is not the question you are asking yourself for the new year, what is?

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The New York Times [12.29.97]

At his Web site, called Edge, John Brockman, a literary agent for many scientists and an author himself, tries to achieve what he calls "electronic discourse at the highest level" with people of "the third culture" -- scientists and other researchers who, he says, "are taking the place of the traditional intellectual in rendering visible the deeper meaning of our lives, redefining who and what we are."

To mark the first anniversary of the site, Brockman posed a question: "Simply reading the six million volumes in the Widener Library does not necessarily lead to a complex and subtle mind," he wrote, referring to the Harvard library. "How to avoid the anesthesiology of wisdom?" He answered the question with other questions -- by inviting participants to submit "the question you are asking yourself." Here are some of their queries. They and others are now available at Edge.

Nimble Deal-Maker For Stars Of Science
The New York Times [10.13.97]

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.

All the authors are scientists, and all except one are clients of their host, John Brockman, the literary agent whose house they were visiting and who presided over the occasion with his wife and business partner, Katinka Matson. Brockman, of Brockman Inc., with a penthouse office in Manhattan just off Fifth Avenue, may have more scientists as clients than any other literary agent. The Independent newspaper in England recently paid him the backhanded compliment of turning his name into a verb, suggesting that there are telltale signs when a scientist is "Brockmaned," one of them being a six-figure advance. His client list reads like a university's interdepartmental committee on evolution, computer science, consciousness and the fate of the cosmos.

At the gathering in Connecticut, for instance, were Steven Pinker ("How the Mind Wor ks"), Lee Smolin ("The Life of the Cosmos"), Daniel Dennett ("Consciousness Explain ed"), Alan Guth ("The Inflationary Universe"), Nicholas Humphrey ("A History of the Mind"), Niles Eldredge ("Reinventing Darwin," "Dominion") and Frank Sulloway ("Freud," "Biologist of the Mind"), who is not a client, at least not yet.

Brockman also represents journalists, a number of them employees ofThe New York Times. But it is as an agent of scientists that Brockman has made his mark. He is known for striking quickly and treating publishers as adversaries in a contest for money. He sells foreign rights to books himself, rather than letting publishers reap those profits, and prides himself on working a global market.

He sold the just published "How the Mind Works" to W.W. Norton for $500,000 to $600,000, said an editor who was involved in the auction for the book but did not buy it. And he just struck a deal for another book by Dr. Pinker for a larger sum, the author said. "Ten years ago," Brockman said, scientists writing for a popular audience "would go to Basic Books or MIT Press and get paid a modest advance and give up world rights." Today, they may think about $1 million.

"Scientists are getting what celebrities got 10 years ago -- well, actually, they're getting as much as celebrities in many cases," Brockman added.

And why not, he asks. "To me," he said, "the people that I work with are the glamorous people. They're the beautiful people. Is there something wrong with an evolutionary biologist being paid as much as a rock star?"

Editors and other agents who deal with Brockman or compete with him, complain, off the record, about quickie book proposals, overblown advances and books that do not come in on time or in good shape.

Unlike most agents, he submits proposals to a number of publishers at the same time, rather than dealing with them one at a time. "He's always looking for huge money," one editor said, and he does not wait for the scientists to decide that it is time to review their careers and write for the ages. He recruits professors who have received good press for their work the way another agent might recruit actors or quarterbacks.

Acting as a book packager, something between an agent and a publisher, he created a Science Masters series of short, reader-friendly books by scientists like Pinker and Dennett and others who are not clients, like the paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould. He has sold the rights for this series worldwide.

Popular books about science have always been around. But an editor at Free Press (owned by Simon & Schuster) who has bought a number of books through Brockman, Susan Arellano, said, "I don't think they had the visibility that John has given them." He has raised the size of advances for books about science to a new level, she said, and Brockman agrees. "I had something to do with that," he said.

Of course, Brockman does not create the books. Jonathan Segal, an editor at Knopf, said that "there are a lot of good books out there in science," and that they are out there because of scientists' research and writing. And Segal pointed out that no one had to participate in a Brockman auction. "It's not John making us bid, it's us," he said.

Brockman says much the same. "It's the people writing the books that matter," he said. "The publishers that will fall all over me to buy book A won't take my calls for book B." In his characteristic conversational mix, stirring business, philosophy and a big name together in the same elliptical breath, he continued: "What I'm saying is the concreteness, in the Whitehead sense, lives with the manuscript and the author. It's not the agent, believe me." That's Alfred North Whitehead, by the way, the English mathematician and philosopher who wrote "Principia Mathematica" with Bertrand Russell. "I'm only as strong as the book I'm representing at that moment," he said, then paused. "Well, to some degree."

Brockman, 56, did not begin with books. After getting his MBA from Columbia University, he moved almost immediately into Manhattan's downtown art world as an orchestrator of the avant-garde. In the 1960s, he put on multimedia events. He worked with Andy Warhol. He worked in Hollywood. And he wrote books himself, essays in which he reflected on subjects like cybernetics, the comparative study of brains and computer systems. His first was called By the Late John Brockman (Macmillan). By his account, he has now written, edited or been a co-author of about 18 books.

He started his literary agency in 1973 and, in the early 80s, had a flurry of success selling computer software and computer books. One of his first big books was "The Whole Earth Software Catalog," sold to Doubleday for $1.3 million. The computer world is still, in some sense, his home. He lives on e-mail and has just set up a Web site, accessed only with passwords, on which he posts proposals for books he is selling. He need only call a publisher or send e-mail to let an editor read a proposal immediately, with no printing or mailing costs for Brockman Inc.

One of the books Brockman wrote caused him a great deal of grief. It was titled "Einstein, Gertrude Stein, Wittgenstein & Frankenstein,"and he had to tell Viking to pull it off the market in 1986 after James Gleick, then a reporter for The New York Times, noticed that sections of it strongly resembled an article he had written for The New York Times Magazine. This was a particularly serious crisis for a literary agent, whose livelihood is the word as property. The book was already in stores.

It was the worst moment of his life, Brockman said, acknowledging that there were sections in his book that should have been attributed to Gleick. He said the mistake had been made by a young assistant to whom he had farmed out some of the books' chapters to finish.

He has continued to write and edit and to organize intellectual salons, both live and virtual. The first was The Reality Club, which he started with the late Heinz Pagels, a physicist, as a way for researchers from different disciplines to get together and talk about their work. He now has a site on the World Wide Web for such discussions, with many of his clients and others talking about cosmology, consciousness and computer science. Reviews of the site are mixed. Murray Gell-Mann, a Nobel laureate in physics and another Brockman client, said that some of the discussion was good, some not. It contains, he said, "a considerable amount of nonsense."

The selling of Gell-Mann's book "The Quark and the Jaguar" has brought Brockman criticism. His handling of that book was excoriated in an article in The New Republic as typical of his approach to selling science books. Brockman was reported to have sold the book to Bantam for $550,000 and topped $1 million with foreign rights.

But Gell-Mann had great trouble writing the book and went through several collaborators, finally turning in a partial manuscript that Bantam rejected. Brockman then resold the book to W.H. Freeman for $50,000. Gell-Mann had to return his advance from Bantam, but he said in an interview that he was happy with Brockman as an agent. "I made a lot of money on the book," Gell-Mann said.

Alan Guth is another scientist and Brockman client who had a book, "The Inflationary Universe," that ran into problems. After an initial burst of enthusiasm and a hefty advance, Guth went through three publishers before his book saw print. He does not blame Brockman, although he does say, sounding bemused rather than resentful, "I would almost go so far as to say he tricked me into writing the book."

In January 1991, Guth related, one of those times when the Big Bang theory was being called into question and his work on an expanding universe was receiving attention, a front-page interview with him appeared in The Wall Street Journal. He received a good deal of publicity elsewhere as well.

Brockman seized the moment. He called Guth and told him that he could get a big advance if Guth would agree to write a book. Guth agreed, and Brockman sold the book to Bantam for $250,000. But Guth said the pressure of other work and his own perfectionism had slowed his progress. "The Inflationary Universe" was finally published by Addison-Wesley (the third of Guth's publishers) for considerably less than Bantam had agreed to pay.

Of course, some Brockman clients publish their books with no trouble, or even with high flying success. And, as he and book editors also point out, it is an agent's job to get large advances for his clients. Both Gell-Mann, who had a world of trouble with his book, and Pinker, for whom all is going smoothly, say they have been quite satisfied with him as an agent.

Brockman thinks of himself not only as a deal-maker, but as a writer and a traveler in the world of ideas. What draws him to his work, he said, is "the idea of exalting ideas." Perhaps the best description of Brockman's relationship to science and scientists is that he is a fan, the sort who knows the ins and outs of the game, the hot subjects, the players, the coaches, the statistics and, of course, the salaries, bonuses and intricacies of free agentry. He is a fan who knows the game so well that he has been able to make it his business.

Being able to work with people he admires, promote important ideas, and, along the way, "make a fine living for myself" makes it, Brockman said, "the best of all possible worlds." He added: "What can I say? It's a great life." 

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Science: Log On with the Lab Coats: Real scientist talk shop after hours
The Web Magazine [9.30.97]

Imagine being transported back in time to 19th-century London, to the Anchor Tavern. The Royal Society, a gathering of "science enthusiasts," is meeting there, over a sumptuous spread of cod's head, mutton, pigeon pie, plum pudding, butter, and cheese, washed down with bumpers of dark porter. You listen and perhaps even participate in discussions with some of the leading minds of the day, debating cutting-edge topics like Charles Darwin's theories of natural selection, Lord Kelvin's research into thermoelectricity, and Charles Lyell's views on uniformitarianism.

Today, "big science" generally takes place in cloistered sanctums that are off-limits to noninitiates. At a site called Edge, however, something of the spirit of the Royal Society (though, sadly, without the victuals and drink) is being revived.

There you can eavesdrop on a shifting cast of science luminaries, including evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, MIT mathematician Marvin Minsky, Nobel-winning physicist Murray Gell-Mann, philosopher Daniel Dennett, and psychologist Steven Pinker. The style is decidedly "after hours," as these brainy folk improvise new ideas like jazz musicians testing their chops, competing, collaborating, and sometimes pontificating within the site's freewheeling text-only forums. Every day, Edge offers an intellectual jam on topics like the origin of racism and the place of emotions in cognitive science.

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Smithsonian [9.30.97]

Brockman, a writer and literary agent himself, believes that the best scientific work ranks as high as any other endeavor in the great achievements of the human mind.