(Cover Story, Sunday Magazine of La Repubblica, Domenica 11 Marzo 2018)


“If the creation of contemporary culture had a global hero, his name would coincide with that of John Brockman.”



[EDITOR'S NOTE: On March 11th, the Sunday magazine of La Repubblica (Italy's largest newspaper) featured Edge in its cover story, translating excerpts by Richard Dawkins, Jared Diamond, Alison Gopnik, Ian McEwan, June Gruber, Hans Ulrich Obrist, Richard Thaler and Brian Eno, from This Idea is Brilliant, the recently published Edge Question book, plus a new interview with the editor of EDGE (yours truly) by the Italian writer Gianluigi Ricuperati, who is also active in the Edge community. —JB]



Scientists and artists. Called to answer a simple, so to speak, question: "What scientific term or concept ought to be more widely known?" From the thinkers of Edge to books by other writers, here's 13 (lucky number) answers.  

[Click on images for original Edge publication in English) 


The Book
This Idea is Brilliant (Harper Collins). Published in the United States in January, It is the latest anthology curated by John Brockman for the site Every year, in December, Scientists and humanist members of the Edge community receive an email with a question. In 2017 the question was: "What Scientific term or concept ought to be more widely known?" The following texts are published here (translated byIsabella Zani): Richard Dawkins ("The Genetic Book of the Dead"), Jared Diamond ("Common Sense"), Ian McEwan ("The Navier-Stokes Equations"), Alison Gopnik ("Life History”), Hans Ulrich Obrist ("The Gaia Hypothesis"), June Gruber ("Emotion Contagion”), Brian Eno (“Confirmation Bias”). Richard Thaler (“The Premortem”); Interview with John Brockman ("Don’t Fear Digital. Use it.”). They were selected by Gianluigi Ricuperati, himself a member of the Edge community. The previous Brockman/Edge books are published in Italy by Il Saggiatore: What Will Change Everything? and What Do You Believe is True but Cannot Prove?   


“Science is not an answer, but a method, which, being based on falsifiability, is an endless process."


Don't Fear Digital: Use It
Interview by Gianluigi Ricuperati 3.11.2018

If the creation of contemporary culture had a global hero, his name would coincide with that of John Brockman, the seventy-seven-year-old driver of the site, a community of scientists and humanists among whom are the most relevant figures of today’s culture. Brockman's other job, as agent, allowed him to earn the confidence of Nobel laureates, while writing essays such as “The Third Culture”. It is Brockman, who has collected the brilliant ideas that we are publishing in these pages.

When did this adventure begin?

In 1965, I was managing the avant-garde Filmmakers' Cinematheque in New York, founded by the great Jonas Mekas. I was twenty-four years old. I had founded my own financial leasing company and during the day went to my Park Avenue office wearing a three-piece Brooks Brothers suit. But at night I went down downtown to Theatre Genesis at St. Marks in the Bowery, where I helped set up the theatre along with a recently arrived playwright Sam Shepard, and his roommate, Charlie Mingus, Jr.

I started a film program at St. Marks which caught the attention of Mekas who asked me to manage the Cinematheque, where I commissioned works by artists such as Nam June Paik, Andy Warhol and Robert Rauschenberg, with a $50 budget for each. During that period, John Cage organized series of dinners every month or so at the home of Fluxus co-founder and poet Dick Higgins, where Cage cooked mushrooms for a small group of artists and thinkers, and talked about the ideas of people like Claude Shannon, Marshall McLuhan, Norbert Wiener. I was surrounded by ­­­unique people: scientists, and also, artists like Cage who were obsessed with science, especially cybernetics.

What sparked your interest in the digital revolution?

In 1984, as the personal computer revolution came of age, I had an interesting idea: US law dictates that whatever you write, you own. And software is, in effect, a text. Since I already ran a literary agency I realized that I could also represent authors of software, the people who wrote code. Within a year I had 60 software clients and landed 7-figure deals for a few of them. This caught the attention of the press, and after I held a dinner for my clients in Las Vegas in 1985, The Wall Street Journal ran a front-page article entitled “Entrepreneur Hosts Millionaires’ Dinner.” This dinner became an annual event and was avidly covered in the press as “The Millionaires’ Dinner”. That changed in 1999, when some of the reporters in attendance made note that 11 of the dinner guests flew in for the dinner in their own private jets. Thus, “The Billionaires’ Dinner” came into being. People at the most recent dinner calculated that the net worth of the 40 guests equaled the combined wealth of 60% of all Americans. That’s when I realized that it was time to retire the dinner.

By the way, aren't the Silicon Valley billionaires also reshaping our mental ecosystem?

Yes, of course. One of the unforeseen consequences of the Digital Revolution are the enormous challenges we face due to the concentration of power and market dominance of the major internet companies and the malign societal effects of their products and business practices. We need to come up with fresh ideas of how to begin to think about how we deal with the profound changes to our human condition in this era.

As to the individuals driving these changes, I've known all of them since they began their careers, and many are my friends. I believe that they all started out as well-intentioned, and there’s no doubt in my mind that Larry Page and Sergey Brin, for example, were sincere when adopted the motto ‘Don’t be evil’.  I sense that the people running these companies have lost control. Certainly, Evan Williams, founder of Twitter, did not anticipate that Donald Trump, with 45 million Twitter followers, would weaponized the platform.

There are those who define the world of Edge as "neopositivist", with an unshakable belief that science is the answer to all problems.

I disagree. Science is not an answer, but a method, which, being based on falsifiability, is an endless process.

Isn't this also a cultural enterprise that has economic implications? Does money improve or worsen the quality of research?

I have always tried to maintain a balance between my ‘business’ side and the obsessive intellectual curiosity that drives me. By 1973, my trilogy, By The Late John Brockman, had been published and I decided that I could start a literary agency for the kind of books that interested me which weren’t even on the radar of the so-called New York ‘intellectuals’ whose 1950s education in Freud, Marx and modernism, left them clueless in a rapidly changing world  But business has its own imperatives and a company either grows or dies. Within a year I was working 12-hour days and not thinking about writing.

Later that year, my friend and first client, the evolutionary biologist and cyberneticist Gregory Bateson, came for lunch and expressed concern about my maintaining my dual roles. And then he gave me some advice that I still think about every day, forty-five years later: "Of all our human inventions, Homo economicus is by far the dullest".


We Are Here To Create


My original dream of finding who we are and why we exist ended up in a failure. Even though we invented all these wonderful tools that will be great for our future, for our kids, for our society, we have not figured out why humans exist. What is interesting for me is that in understanding that these AI tools are doing repetitive tasks, it certainly comes back to tell us that doing repetitive tasks can’t be what makes us humans. The arrival of AI will at least remove what cannot be our reason for existence on this earth. If that’s half of our job tasks, then that’s half of our time back to thinking about why we exist. One very valid reason for existing is that we are here to create. What AI cannot do is perhaps a potential reason for why we exist. One such direction is that we create. We invent things. We celebrate creation. We’re very creative about scientific process, about curing diseases, about writing books, writing movies, creative about telling stories, doing a brilliant job in marketing. This is our creativity that we should celebrate, and that’s perhaps what makes us human.

KAI-FU LEE, founder of Sinovation Ventures, was listed by Forbes as #1 in technology in China. Prior to that, he was Corporate Vice President at Microsoft and the founder of Microsoft Research Asia in Beijing, one of the world’s top research labs; and then Google Corporate President and the President of Google Greater China. He is the author of the forthcoming AI Superpowers: China, Silicon Valley, and the New World Order.  Kai-Fu Lee's Edge Bio page 

ANNE TREISMAN — 1935-2018

In 2006, I was heading downtown in a car with the distinguished neuroscientist and Nobel Laureate Eric Kandel en route to dinner with cognitive psychologist Anne Treisman and her husband, psychologist and nobelist Daniel Kahneman. I had recently met Treisman so I took the opportunity to ask Kandel about her work and its impact on the field. "In 1980," he responded, "Anne wrote a paper and everything in the field of neuroscience stopped." 


There are many kinds of scientific genius­­­—mathematical prowess, technological virtuosity, a naturalist’s keen eye—but perhaps the most impressive is the gift of illuminating a deep phenomenon with a simple and elegant demonstration. Anne Treisman’s experiments on visual search and illusory conjunctions are so low-tech they can be carried out in an intro-psych lecture, so robust that they elicit audible gasps from the students, and so profound that they help explain major features of perception, attention, cognition, neuroanatomy, and consciousness.

There are many kinds of scientific genius­­­—mathematical prowess, technological virtuosity, a naturalist’s keen eye —but perhaps the most impressive is the gift of illuminating a deep phenomenon with a simple and elegant demonstration. Anne Treisman’s experiments on visual search and illusory conjunctions are so low-tech they can be carried out in an intro-psych lecture, so robust that they elicit audible gasps from the students, and so profound that they help explain major features of perception, attention, cognition, neuroanatomy, and consciousness.

— Steven PinkerJohnstone Family Professor, Department of Psychology, Harvard University; Author, Enlightenment Now


Anne Treisman, one of the most influential cognitive psychologists in the world, was the James S. McDonnell Distinguished University Professor of Psychology at Princeton University. For over 40 years she defined fundamental issues of how information is selected and integrated to form meaningful objects and memories that guide human thought and action. Her creativity and insight often challenged investigators to think outside the box, to reach beyond their own specialties and to address the hard questions of human cognition. Her most recent research interests included visual perception of objects and the role of attention, integration of information in perception of moving and changing objects, perceptual learning, visual memory for objects and events, and the coding of shape and motion.

A Common Sense


We need to acknowledge our profound ignorance and begin to craft a culture that will be based on some notion of communalism and interspecies symbiosis rather than survival of the fittest. These concepts are available and fully elaborated by, say, a biologist like Lynn Margulis, but they're still not the central paradigm. They’re still not organizing our research or driving our culture and our cultural evolution. That’s what I’m frustrated with. There’s so much good intellectual work, so much good philosophy, so much good biology—how can we make that more central to what we do? 

CAROLINE A. JONES is professor of art history in the History, Theory, Criticism section of the Department of Architecture at MIT. Caroline A. Jones's Edge Bio page 

Schirrmacher's Heritage


A book of essays claims the authority to interpret, carries the militant title "Reclaim Autonomy”, and demands self-empowerment.

The questions of how science and technology are transforming life and society are among the greatest intellectual challenges that surprisingly few of today's intellectuals take on. One of the first to do so was FAZ editor Frank Schirrmacher, who died in 2014. So it was not only an gesture of respect, but also an attempt at a programmatic continuation, when the publisher of the weekly Freitag, Jakob Augstein, dedicated a symposium on digital debate to Frank Schirrmacher.

John Perry Barlow (1947-2018)


John Perry Barlow (1947-2018)

The Barlow Knife
By George Dyson 

John Perry Barlow, one of the Internet’s founding provocateurs, was born on October 3, 1947 and died on February 7, 2018.

 Among my treasured works at the foundations of American history is the 1919 edition of The Tryal of William Penn & William Mead for Causing a Tumult, at the Sessions Held at the Old Bailey in London the 1st, 3d, 4th, and 5th of September 1670, with a dedication by Don C. Seitz “to the memory of Thomas Jefferson which needs frequent refreshing.” For the same reason, John Brockman’s 1996 interview with John Perry Barlow is reproduced below.

The bible of the 1960s, when Barlow gained prominence, was the Whole Earth Catalog, a direct progenitor of the personal computer and Internet revolutions that was subtitled Access to Tools. The Barlow knife was (and is) a rugged pocket knife with two blades, one large and one small. Inexpensive and understated, it was forged from the best American steel. It was no multi-tool but it held an edge like nothing else and was essential to life on the American frontier. George Washington owned one. I dropped my first Barlow knife overboard in 200 fathoms and it hurt.

John Perry Barlow took after the knife. With the small blade he stayed in the background as a lyricist for the Grateful Dead. With his “Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace”, issued at Davos in February of 1996, he opened the large blade and sliced into the emerging Internet, carving out an entire territory for himself and his brain-child, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF).

The remarkable thing about Barlow’s wild warnings and prophecies is that they weren’t wild enough. He warned that the Government would step in to control the Internet under the guise of controlling pornography, whereas pornography turned out to be one of the greatest and least regulated drivers of the Internet’s uncontrolled growth. He reminded us that “there has always been a relationship between the performer and the audience that hasn't been well mapped,” and that “you would never claim to own your friendships.” Then two of the currently wealthiest plantation owners on the Internet stepped in and became so by doing just that.

In a mere twenty years, we have gone from fears of the Government controlling the Internet to fears of the Internet controlling the Government. 

Keep one hand on your Barlow knife.


The EDGE Question—2018

"One of the most exciting reading streams ever." — Sueddeutsche Zeitung


"Another devilishly clever question—the 'question' question." 
Stanislas Dehaene

"Fascinating...Each one a little cluster bomb of possibilities."
Annalena McAfee

"One of the most stimulating pieces of (collective) writing ever."
Andrian Kreye

"Chrysanthemum" [expandby Katinka Matson |


After twenty years, I’ve run out of questions. So, for the finale to a noteworthy Edge project, can you ask "The Last Question"? 

Interrogate Reality

Did I say "twenty years"? My strange obsession with the idea of "Question" goes back to 1968 when I first wrote about the idea of interrogating reality 1

"The final elegance: assuming, asking the question. No answers. No explanations. Why do you demand explanations? If they are given, you will once more be facing a terminus. They cannot get you any further than you are at present. 2 The solution: not an explanation: a description and knowing how to consider it.

"Everything has been explained. There is nothing left to consider. The explanation can no longer be treated as a definition. The question: a description. The answer: not explanation, but a description and knowing how to consider it. Asking or telling: there isn’t any difference.

"No explanation, no solution, but consideration of the question. Every proposition proposing a fact must in its complete analysis propose the general character of the universe required for the fact. 3 

"Our kind of innovation consists not in the answers, but in the true novelty of the questions themselves; in the statement of problems, not in their solutions. 4 What is important is not to illustrate a truth—or even an interrogation—known in advance, but to bring to the world certain interrogations . . . not yet known as such to themselves. 5

"A total synthesis of all human knowledge will not result in huge libraries filled with books, in fantastic amounts of data stored on servers. There's no value any more in amount, in quantity, in explanation. For a total synthesis of human knowledge, use the interrogative." 

The conceptual artist/philosopher James Lee Byars contacted me and suggested a collaboration of sorts which resulted in our taking daily walks in Central Park as Byars and I walked and talked, conversing only in interrogative sentences. Does it sound like fun? Want to try it?

James Lee soon began to develop his ideas which led to "The World Question Center":

To arrive at an axiology of the world's knowledge, seek out the most complex and sophisticated minds, put them in a room together, and have them ask each other the questions they are asking themselves.”

On November 26, 1968, he launched "The World Question Center" in a one-hour television program produced in Brussels at the studios of the Belgian National Television Network and broadcast live to a national audience.

Click here to watch

During the hour, he called numerous celebrated intellectuals such as composer John Cage, science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke, futurist Herman Kahn, artist Joseph Beuys, novelist Jerzy Kosinski, poet Michael McClure, and asked, in various ways, the following:

"I’m trying to find hypotheses that people are working with that are reduced into some type of very simple single question with no explanation, hopefully, that’s important to them in their own evolution of knowledge. Might you offer one that’s personal?"

For the 50th anniversary of "The World Question Center," and for the finale to the twenty years of Edge Questions, I turned it over to the Edgies:

"Ask 'The Last Question,' your last question, the question for which you will be remembered."

John Brockman
Editor, Edge


1 John Brockman, By The Late John Brockman (New York: Macmillan, 1969)
2 Ludwig Wittgenstein, Zettel, eds. G. E. M. Anscombe and G. H. von Wright, trans. G. E. M. Anscombe(Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967), p. 58e, para. 315.  

Alfred North Whitehead, Process And Reality (New York: Harper & Row, 1960), p.17.
4 Paul Valery, The Outlook For Intelligence (New York: Harper & Row, 1962).
5 Alain Robbe-Grillet, For a New Novel, trans. Richard Howard (New York: Grove Press, 1965).  

Russell Weinberger, Associate Publisher
Nina Stegeman, Associate Editor
Katinka Matson, Co-founder & Resident Artist

Thanks to Stewart Brand, Kevin Kelly, and George Dyson for 20 years of advice and support.


What Is The Last Question?

(start reading here)

Contributors: [PAGE 1Scott Aaronson, Anthony Aguirre, Dorsa Amir, Chris Anderson, Ross Anderson, Alun Anderson, Samuel Arbesman, Dan Ariely, Noga Arikha, W. Brian Arthur, Scott Atran, Joscha Bach, Mahzarin Banaji, Simon Baron-Cohen, Lisa Feldman Barrett, Andrew Barron, Thomas A. Bass, Mary Catherine Bateson, Gregory Benford, Laura Betzig, Susan Blackmore, Alan S. Blinder
[PAGE 2Paul Bloom, Giulio Boccaletti, Ian Bogost, Joshua Bongard, Nick Bostrom, Stewart Brand, Rodney A. Brooks, David M. Buss, Philip Campbell, Jimena Canales, Christopher Chabris, David Chalmers, Leo M. Chalupa, Ashvin Chhabra, Jaeweon Cho, Nicholas A. Christakis, David Christian, Brian Christian, George Church, Andy Clark
[PAGE 3] Julia Clarke, Tyler Cowen, Jerry A. Coyne, James Croak, Molly Crockett, Helena Cronin, Oliver Scott Curry, David Dalrymple, Kate Darling, Luca De Biase, Stanislas Dehaene, Daniel C. Dennett, Emanuel Derman, David Deutsch, Keith Devlin, Jared Diamond, Chris DiBona, Rolf Dobelli, P. Murali Doraiswamy, Freeman Dyson, George Dyson
[PAGE 4] David M. Eagleman, David Edelman, Nick Enfield, Brian Eno, Juan Enriquez, Dylan Evans, Daniel L. Everett, Christine Finn, Stuart Firestein, Helen Fisher, Steve Fuller, Howard Gardner, David C. Geary, James Geary, Amanda Gefter, Neil Gershenfeld, Asif A. Ghazanfar, Steve Giddings, Gerd Gigerenzer, Bruno Giussani
[PAGE 5Joel Gold, Nigel Goldenfeld, Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, Daniel Goleman, Alison Gopnik, John Gottman, Jonathan Gottschall, William Grassie, Kurt Gray, A. C. Grayling, Tom Griffiths, June Gruber, Jonathan Haidt, David Haig, Hans Halvorson, Timo Hannay, Judith Rich Harris, Sam Harris, Daniel Haun, Marti Hearst, Dirk Helbing
[PAGE 6] César Hidalgo, Roger Highfield, W. Daniel Hillis, Michael Hochberg, Donald D. Hoffman, Bruce Hood, Daniel Hook, John Horgan, Sabine Hossenfelder, Nicholas Humphrey, Marco Iacoboni, Isabel Behncke Izquierdo, Nina Jablonski, Matthew O. Jackson, Jennifer Jacquet, Dale W Jamieson, Koo Jeong-A, Lorraine Justice, Gordon Kane, Stuart A. Kauffman
[PAGE 7] Brian G. Keating, Paul Kedrosky, Kevin Kelly, Marcel Kinsbourne, Gary Klein, Jon Kleinberg, Brian Knutson, Bart Kosko, Stephen M. Kosslyn, John W. Krakauer, Kai Krause, Lawrence M. Krauss, Andrian Kreye, Coco Krumme, Robert Kurzban, Joseph LeDoux, Cristine H. Legare, Martin Lercher, Margaret Levi, Janna Levin
[PAGE 8Andrei Linde, Tania Lombrozo, Antony Garrett Lisi, Mario Livio, Seth Lloyd, Jonathan B. Losos, Greg Lynn, Ziyad Marar, Gary Marcus, John Markoff, Chiara Marletto, Abigail Marsh, Barnaby Marsh, John C. Mather, Tim Maudlin, Annalena McAfee, Michael McCullough, Ian McEwan, Ryan McKay, Hugo Mercier, Thomas Metzinger
[PAGE 9] Yuri Milner, Read Montague, Dave Morin, Lisa Mosconi, David G. Myers, Priyamvada Natarajan, John Naughton, Randolph Nesse, Richard Nisbett, Tor Nørretranders, Michael I. Norton, Martin Nowak, James J. O'Donnell, Tim O'Reilly, Hans Ulrich Obrist, Steve Omohundro, Toby Ord, Gloria Origgi, Mark Pagel, Elaine Pagels, Bruce Parker
[PAGE 10Josef Penninger, Irene Pepperberg, Clifford Pickover, Steven Pinker, David Pizarro, Robert Plomin, Jordan Pollack, Alex Poots, Carolyn Porco, William Poundstone, William H. Press, Robert Provine, Matthew Putman, David C. Queller, Sheizaf Rafaeli, Vilayanur Ramachandran, Lisa Randall, S. Abbas Raza, Syed Tasnim Raza, Martin Rees, Ed Regis, Diana Reiss
[PAGE 11] Gianluigi Ricuperati, Jennifer Richeson, Siobhan Roberts, Andrés Roemer, Phil Rosenzweig, Carlo Rovelli, Douglas Rushkoff, Karl Sabbagh, Todd C. Sacktor, Paul Saffo, Eduardo Salcedo-Albaran, Buddhini Samarasinghe, Scott Sampson, Laurie R. Santos, Robert Sapolsky, Dimitar D. Sasselov, Roger Schank, Rene Scheu, Maximilian Schich, Simone Schnall
[PAGE 12] Bruce Schneier, Peter Schwartz, Gino Segre, Charles Seife, Terrence J. Sejnowski, Michael Shermer, Olivier Sibony, Laurence C. Smith, Monica L. Smith, Lee Smolin, Dan Sperber, Maria Spiropulu, Nina Stegeman, Paul Steinhardt, Bruce Sterling, Stephen J. Stich, Victoria Stodden, Christopher Stringer, Seirian Sumner, Leonard Susskind, Jaan Tallinn,
[PAGE 13Timothy Taylor, Max Tegmark, Richard H. Thaler, Frank Tipler, Eric Topol, Sherry Turkle, Barbara Tversky, Michael Vassar, J. Craig Venter, Athena Vouloumanos, D.A. Wallach, Adam Waytz, Bret Weinstein, Eric R. Weinstein, Albert Wenger, Geoffrey West, Thalia Wheatley, Tim White, Linda Wilbrecht, Frank Wilczek
[PAGE 14] Jason Wilkes, Evan Williams, Alexander Wissner-Gross, Milford H. Wolpoff, Richard Wrangham, Elizabeth Wrigley-Field, Richard Saul Wurman, Victoria Wyatt, Itai Yanai, Dustin Yellin, Eliezer S. Yudkowsky, Dan Zahavi, Anton Zeilinger, Carl Zimmer

(Primary criteria for selection to the 2017 “Global 30” is the influence
on Chinese society. Political figures are not included in the selection.)

Ask the Global 30


Interview  |  Yang Lu


约翰·布罗克曼 John Brockman: Awkwardness, confusion, and contradiction are my three best friends

P: Your friend James Lee Byars believed, that to arrive at a satisfactory plateau of knowledge it was pure folly to go to Widener Library at Harvard and read six million books. Instead, he planned to lock the 100 most brilliant minds in the world in a room and have them ask one another the questions they'd been asking themselves. The expected result—in theory—was to be a synthesis of all thought. But it didn't work out that way. Byars did identify his 100 most brilliant minds and phoned each of them. The result: 70 hung up on him.

You created the website which is very similar to Byars’s idea. Why did you succeed?

B: I had gotten to know the founders of the major internet companies when they were starting out and before they became successful. The founders of Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Twitter, Tesla, have all attended my annual "Billionaires' Dinner." I am, according to software visionary and father of hypertext Ted Nelson, "the shadowy figure at the top of the cyber-food chain."

Ten years after the late artist-philosopher James Lee’s informed failure, I created an informal gathering of intellectuals who met from 1981 to 1996 in Chinese restaurants, artist lofts, investment banking firms, ballrooms, museums, living ­­rooms and elsewhere. Reality Club members presented their work with the understanding that they would be challenged. The hallmark of The Reality Club was rigorous and sometimes impolite (but not ad hominem) discourse. The motto of the Club was inspired by James Lee:

To arrive at the edge of the world's knowledge, seek out the most complex and sophisticated minds, put them in a room together, and have them ask each other the questions they are asking themselves. 

If you were left with the chance of asking only one fundamental question about the future of humanity, which one would it be? That's exactly what legendary American literary agent John Brockman wanted to know of freethinkers, scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs moving at and across the very borders of modern thought. We present their best answers – in question form.
What is a philosopher? Philosophers are people who formulate questions in a way that they can’t be answered unequivocally. This may sound problematic but is undoubtedly a high art. The classical example, in Leibniz's words, is as simple as it is beautiful: Why is there something and not nothing? Later, Immanuel Kant called the art of such questions metaphysics and recognized in it the opposite of science – namely a "natural system" of man. Reason is beset by questions that it cannot reject and just as little can answer. In the Critique of Pure Reason, Kant draws a clear line between knowledge and speculation. But it is precisely this line that has become fragile with the life sciences, with information theory and digital technology.
Schirrmacher's Heritage
By Andrian Kreye February 9, 2018
A book of essays claims the authority to interpret, carries the militant title "Reclaim Autonomy”, and demands self-empowerment.
The questions of how science and technology are transforming life and society are among the greatest intellectual challenges that surprisingly few of today's intellectuals take on. One of the first to do so was FAZ editor Frank Schirrmacher, who died in 2014. So it was not only an gesture of respect, but also an attempt at a programmatic continuation, when the publisher of the weekly Freitag, Jakob Augstein, dedicated a symposium on digital debate to Frank Schirrmacher.

[ Continue... ]


Is the answer that we have run out of good questions?
By Kenan Malik February 17, 2018

John Brockman has run out of questions. Brockman, a literary agent, runs the science and philosophy site Every year for 20 years, he has asked leading thinkers to answer a particular question, such as: “What questions have disappeared?” or: “What do you believe is true even though you cannot prove it?” This year, though, Brockman announced that he has no more questions left. So he asked his final question: “What is the last question?”

“Judge a man by his questions rather than by his answers,” Voltaire insisted. Questions help us define what we don’t know and force us or others to justify what we think we do know.

Asking questions is relatively easy. Asking good questions is surprisingly difficult. A bad question searches for an answer that confirms what we already know. A good question helps to reset our intellectual horizons. It has an answer that we can reach, yet unsettles what we already know.

The last of Edge
By Arcadi Sword February 6, 2018

Since 1998...the editor John Brockman has asked these questions on his Edge page ( ) to a hundred long intellectuals...

Brockman...says he has run out of questions and this year he has launched the last one. The question is, obviously: What is the last question? A chrysanthemum is the flower that Katinka Matson has chosen for her ritual illustration. There are many answers to look for. This is from Ryan Mckay , a psychologist at the University of London: "Will we be one of the last generations to die?" Of Robert Sapolsky, neuroscientist at Stanford: "Given the nature of life, the purposeless indifference of the universe and our absolute lack of free will, how is it possible that most people are not clinically depressed?" But the best last question, of a Leibnizian nature, is that of the MIT physicist Frank Wilczek. Given its monumental size it is understandable that answering it can never be among the obligations that a newspaper has contracted with the news.


Church Speaks


The biggest energy creators in the world, the ones that take solar energy and turn it into a form that’s useful to humans, are these photosynthetic organisms. The cyanobacteria fix [carbon via] light as well or better than land plants. Under ideal circumstances, they can be maybe seven to ten times more productive per photon. . . .

Cyanobacteria turn carbon dioxide, a global warming gas, into carbohydrates and other carbon-containing polymers, which sequester the carbon so that they're no longer global warming gases. They turn it into their own bodies. They do this on such a big scale that about 15 percent of the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is fixed every year by these cyanobacteria, which is roughly the amount that we’re off from the pre-industrial era. If all of the material that they fix didn’t turn back into carbon dioxide, we’d have solved the global warming problem in a year or two. The reality, however, is that almost as soon as they divide and make baby bacteria, phages break them open, spilling their guts, and they start turning into carbon dioxide. Then all the other things around them start chomping on the bits left over from the phages.

GEORGE CHURCH is professor of genetics at Harvard Medical School, director of the Personal Genome Project, and co-author (with Ed Regis) of Regenesis. George Church's Edge Bio page 

This Idea is Brilliant

On Sale Now!

CONTENTS: author of The God Delusion RICHARD DAWKINS on using animals’ “Genetic Book of the Dead” to reconstruct ecological history; MacArthur Fellow REBECCA NEWBERGER GOLDSTEIN on “scientific realism,” the idea that scientific theories explain phenomena beyond what we can see and touch; author of Seven Brief Lessons on Physics CARLO ROVELLI on “relative information,” which governs the physical world around us; theoretical physicist LAWRENCE M. KRAUSS on the hidden blessings of “uncertainty”; cognitive scientist and author of The Language Instinct STEVEN PINKER on “The Second Law of Thermodynamics”; biogerontologist AUBREY DE GREY on why “maladaptive traits” have been conserved evolutionarily; musician BRIAN ENO on “confirmation bias” in the internet age; Man Booker-winning author of Atonement IAN MCEWAN on the “Navier-Stokes Equations,” which govern everything from weather prediction to aircraft design and blood flow; plus pieces from RICHARD THALER, JARED DIAMOND, NICHOLAS CARR, JANNA LEVIN, LISA RANDALL, KEVIN KELLY, DANIEL COLEMAN, FRANK WILCZEK, RORY SUTHERLAND, NINA JABLONSKI, MARTIN REES, ALISON GOPNIK, and many, many others.


Thinking Aloud About Thinking Machines—Chemistry Vs. Electronics


I'm thinking about the difference between artificial intelligence and artificial life. AI is smart and complicated and generally predictable by another computer (at some sufficient level of generality even if you allow for randomness). Artificial life is unpredictable and complex; it makes unpredictable mistakes that mostly are errors, but that sometimes show flashes of genius or stunning luck.


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