Science: Log On with the Lab Coats: Real scientist talk shop after hours [1]

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[ Tue. Sep. 30. 1997 ]

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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