Evangelist of Pop Science: ... Brockman is responsible for the coinage of the "third culture. [1]

[ Fri. Sep. 8. 2000 ]

The media loved Abbie Hoffman, the clown among the revolutionaries on the streets of America in the late 1960s. He delivered protest as free entertainment for families sitting around their dinner tables. At the famous Woodstock Festival he called out to the "Woodstock Nation" until an agitated Pete Townshend of the rock band The Who kicked him off the stage. In 1967 he and his comrades threw dollar bills from the visitors' gallery of the New York Stock Exchange onto the heads of well-dressed traders, who greedily fought over the money.

A little later the revolutionary surrounded the Pentagon with 50,000 sympathizers in order to drive out all of its evil spirits. During the 1968 presidential campaign his Youth International Party nominated "Pigasus for President" — a pig — which, however, failed to win. Finally, at the investigation into whether or not he had hatched a conspiracy to riot at the 1968 Democratic National Convention, the political leader said only, "Conspiracy? We can't even agree on lunch."

Hoffman's lively staging of media spectacles was not the result of chance. A close friend often roamed with him through the canyons of New York City, debating how to excite public awareness after the end of the Gutenberg Galaxy and thereby to affect politics. "Abbie's public service was a revolutionary practical joke — it was provocative political theater," explains his former accomplice looking back. He is John Brockman of New York, America's most famous literary agent. The memory of the strange rebel, who took his life in 1989, affects this businessman visibly. In the middle of a conversation that we shared on his farm north of New York, the 59 year-old manager interrupts his generally monotone litany of the story of his success, leans back and reflects on his old friend.

Just a few days ago, Brockman watched the sentimental film Steal This Movie, which covers the life of this specter of the bourgeoisie. He then drove back to his idyllic farm, which sits like a white crown on a hill between a pond and a tennis court in Connecticut. "I was Abbie's technician," jokes Brockman, wearing a fine straw hat and arranging his fashionable jacket under a 200 year-old maple tree. "I shared Abbie what I learned from Marshall McLuhan, the philosopher of media."

Although playing intellectual midwife for political practical jokes is no longer a part of Brockman's program, he hasn't lost his sense of drama. He's merely moved onto other stages: the book business, an intellectual internet salon (www.edge.org [4]), and his annual "Billionaires Ball" in California. Just as in the past, the agent prefers playing the role of an intelligent impresario, leaving others to take the stage in new zeitgeist-tickling plays. At the most the agent has a catch phrase at the ready. His name for the approximately 150 natural scientists among his over 400 authors has taken on a life of its own within science departments and in the German arts and letters pages (most importantly the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung): the "third culture."

Brockman takes the term from the British novelist and physicist C.P. Snow. In a 1959 essay, he argued that the intellectual culture of the western world had been split into two camps — the natural sciences and humanities — that would not communicate with one another. Snow's hope was for a third culture in which academics in the humanities would succeed in mastering the lingua franca of physicists and biologists through a sort of continuing education.

Brockman has seen the third culture enter the public consciousness since then, as there has been an increasing interest in the continuing successes in the natural sciences and technology, and in the sales figures for popular science books. However, the new protagonists do not occupy a natural place within cultural life. He sees natural scientists and thinkers working outside of their disciplines, taking over the role of the classical intellectual by "making visible the deeper meanings of our lives and redefining who and what we are."

The leading writers of Brockman's natural scientist avant garde introduce themes to their readers that were previously reserved for philosophers, historians, or ethicists. Among them are Steven Pinker, a cognitive scientist at MIT and superstar among pop science writers, whose book Words and Rules: The Ingredients of Language (appearing this fall in German translation) explains the most recent discoveries concerning the neuropsychology of language acquisition. Californian physiologist Jared Diamond achieved fame in the States for his investigation into the influence of geographic factors on cultural developments. And the Nestor of popular science journalism, evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, created excitement in more than the scientific world with his 1976 bookThe Selfish Gene, which argues that the gene uses the human as a host in order to proliferate itself as broadly as possible.

According to Brockman, such researchers writing for a popular audience completes a development that had its beginning over four hundred years ago. Since the beginning of the modern age, scientists have taken piece after piece of the natural world into their possession. First the astronomers and physicists gathered the cosmos and earth to themselves. Later, during the industrial revolution, mechanization appeared to be a greater blessing than metaphysics ever was. Today those who explain the world are generally no longer minds schooled on philosophy and literature, but are natural scientists who have grown up in laboratories over formulas. Geneticists explain without any irony that the human grows out of the endless salad of the four letters of DNA. It may be that one segment of the alphabetical construction plan of Homo Sapiens says nothing about the person. One glance at the confused genetic alphabet, however, is enough to leave one astonished, because if the rows of letters were mixed up, even just a little, one human being would collapse in death, another would find his sickness healed, and still another might be reborn as an ape.

In earlier times, the educated classes drew their conception of the world from Thomas Mann, or later from Theodor W. Adorno. Today, however, the wind blows in another direction. Although, for example, Jacques Derrida's name is known in well-read circles, only a small minority would be able to explain the significance of the philosopher's work. On the other hand, the debate over the influence of genetics on human behavior is known to nearly everyone, whether or not everyone knows the Harvard-educated ant researcher E.O. Wilson, who founded the discipline of socio-biology in the 1970s.

Philosophers prepared the mental foundation for the trail of success of the natural sciences. In the seventies, when intellectuals were still wearing enlightenment, emancipation, and justice on their sleeves, Francois Lyotard served as an emissary. He argued that we should no longer believe in great projects and that everything is breaking into the randomness of the "postmodern." However, one cannot live without a narrative that creates sense. The third culture of engineers, physicists and evolutionary biologists dove into this breach in order to show us how our world and our knowledge of it changes through our own handiwork.

But at the same time, the new pop-scientists surrounding Brockman sometimes reach far beyond this goal. Several fantasize about the basis of Moore's Law, according to which the computational power of computers doubles every 18 months, in fantastic visions of a robot society — here the scientific construction of a picture of the world turns to science fiction. Roboticist Ray Kurzweil seriously predicts a detailed plan for the arrival of the robot society: In just 2019 an average computer should think as quickly as the human mind; in 2029 it will possess its own consciousness and by 2099 all differences between human and machine will fall away. But such prophecies speak more about the love of a computer scientist for his machines than a healthy understanding of the completely unique architecture of the human brain.

The natural sciences, which later brought him success and wealth, fell into Brockman's lap somewhat coincidentally. In the sixties, shortly after completing a degree at the Columbia Business School, he ran with the cultural avant garde of New York. It was not only with Abbie Hoffman that he spent his evenings. He knew Andy Warhol as well as John Cage, who one day pulled from his bag a book that Brockman had never heard about — Cybernetics by Norbert Wiener: "The artists I knew read scientific books. They saw the really interesting and progressive ideas, not so, the intellectuals of the old guard."

At that time the man who would become an agent composed several wild collections of aphorisms, the first of which carried the simple title By the Late John Brockman. Among them could be found such meaningful terminal statements as, "The choice is between the present and the past. The choice is between choice and no choice. There is no choice." And, "Who's crazy? Mankind went out of its mind. There is no mind out of which to go. Who's crazy?" Or, "Give him a name. It is dead. It is real." As fuzzy and inconsequential as the aphorisms sound, the book found a loyal following and got him off the ground with publishers and book contracts. It was here that the young writer immediately showed his enormous talent. Because of this, friends of his book such as John Lilly, the researcher of dolphins and of consciousness, and the cultural anthropologist Gregory Bateson asked him to take over their burdensome negotiations with publishers.

Brockman is known for being a hard-edged literary agent: "I carry on this business in order to make money. It's not my job to help people. But my authors earn a lot of money through my work, and I do pretty well because of it." One glance at his stately property, the garden, the tennis court, and the red horse stable are testimony to this.

The agent introduced a completely new set of customs to the publishing business. Typical of Brockman's work style is the story of the book Wrinkles in Time. Passing a newsstand on the way to a Japanese airport in 1992, he noticed a headline reporting sensational new developments in research about the universe. When he arrived at the airport, he hurried to a telephone to tell George Smoot, the leader of the experiment team, that the time was ripe for a bestseller on his discoveries. He asked the physicist to assemble a proposal quickly, and he would take care of the rest. When he arrived in New York, the proposal lay on Brockman's desk. He edited the text and sent the concept to sixty publishers in twelve countries and initiated an auction. In the USA alone, William Morrow and Co. paid a $400,000 advance for the rights to publish the book.

But such nimbleness can also cause problems. In May 1998 science journalist Gina Kolata published a story on the front page of the New York Times about a cure for cancer that was supposed to turn away the blood supply flowing to malignant tumors. Brockman didn't delay in asking Kolata for a book proposal that could be turned into a sensation. The concept was red hot, and the article quoted Nobel Prize-winner James Watson's statement that the method would deliver a medication for cancer within two years. The next day, the first offer from a major New York publisher already lay on the table. But then Watson made a statement to the press saying that he had been misquoted. In fact, the method had until then only been tested on lab mice, and a practical drug lay in the distant future.

If fax transmissions weren't enough to make readers at publishing houses break out in a sweat, Brockman expects even more of them. He submits proposals using an "extranet" designed by the firm rightscenter.com: "It's become the marketplace of the future for authors, publishers, and agents — a sort of online auction house for the written word." It is no wonder that Brockman also invested his own capital in the company, even if it is "only in the lower six-figure range." Publishers are sent an e-mail containing a password that enables them to view and consider valuable book ideas on their computer monitors. Brockman demonstrates the most recent offering with a few mouse clicks on his streamlined laptop, connected to the Internet using no cable while he sits at his garden table over croissants, butter, and coffee.

A colorful photo of a bearded motorcyclist sitting weightily on his heavy machine appears in the browser window. He is John Patrick, Vice-President of internet technology at IBM. He plans to write a book about the future of the internet,"and it is bound to sell well," surmises Brockman. He has already sent e-mails to publishers worldwide in order to make them aware of the project. Besides the large photo, they can view the proposal, a table of contents, press articles, a short biography, the planned length of the work, and the delivery date — all online. And the bidding war has already begun.

But Brockman does not invoke the third culture merely as a marketing strategy. It is much more the case that he has a nose for the zeitgeist. "When something interests me," he says self confidently, "then there is usually a market for it." And what interests him are the natural sciences and technology, not the passé exclusive forum of New York intellectuals, the Partisan Review: "They would continue to discuss today who was a Trotskyist sixty years ago and who wasn't." But instead of making a long speech about the effects of the Internet, biotechnology or robotics, he simply recommends the story of a life-changing experience: "For anyone who looks at Dolly and thinks about it for just a minute, the meaning of the new technology speaks for itself." Naturally, Brockman has already meditated over Dolly as if she were the first sheep he had ever seen. This year Brockman will travel to Edinburgh in order to be further enlightened. He will pay a visit to the first cloned pig, which was born in March.

Brockman's third culture is admittedly no novelty. The dynamic agent teased the concept out of the writings of C.P Snow in a 1991 article for the Los Angeles Times, and hung a wreath of science authors around his neck. The growing impact of popular science became recognizable at the end of the 1980s, when the wheelchair-bound, Cambridge astrophysicist Stephen Hawking sold several million copies of his book A Brief History of Time — the highest selling science title ever. Renowned authors like E.O. Wilson and Richard Dawkins have already been known within science departments for decades. But the transformation in the discourse of the German arts and letters pages is something new. Many see there a realization of C.P Snow's hope that the new third culture might join originally literary minds with brilliant thinkers from physics and biology.

But in reference to such nuanced differences Brockman just waves his hand and remarks nearly as apodictically as ever, "The third culture is simply culture. It's what's happening now." Such intellectual generosity suggests that Brockman in no way counts himself among the academic purists. He also remains open to higher-level nonsense. Among his stable of authors are, for example, Frank Tipler, whose book title The Physics of Immortality: Modern Cosmology, God, and the Resurrection of the Dead requires no comment. Another is Rupert Sheldrake. He believes in "morphogenic fields" that cause a clairvoyant dog to run to a house's front door with its tail wagging just as his master turns around the corner two blocks away.

Brockman smiles when one brings up these black sheep among his collection of scientists. He explains amusedly that many at Oxford stand up and leave the room as soon as Sheldrake enters. This calmness would in no way surprise the blessed Abbie Hoffman. At the end of the sixties he told the young Brockman "You just want to be the technician. you ain't got heart!", meaning that political activism and the anti-Vietnam movement were just not his thing. Brockman, who at that time provided advice without any particular pangs of conscience to the White House and General Electric, never shared Hoffman's moral convictions. But that didn't stop him from using his sixth sense for "happenings" to lasting advantage — witness the many who have already benefited a realization of C.P. Snow's hope for a third culture based on literary minds well tuned with physics and biology.