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The Edge Annual Question

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“Here’s a book for you.”

The composer John Cage leaned across the table and handed me a copy of Cybernetics by Norbert Wiener. The year was 1966. We were at a weekly dinner gathering of young artists at the townhouse of Fluxus pioneer Dick Higgins. Cage would cook a meal--a mushroom dish--and we would sit around discussing his latest ideas.

I had been invited to meet with Cage because of my work on The Expanded Cinema Festival at Film-maker's Cinematheque in New York, a month-long program in late 1965 of performances by artists, dancers, poets, film-makers, and “happenings” performers, the connecting thread being the incorporation of cinema into their work.

Painter Robert Rauschenberg mounted a kinetic collage, a living version of his famous art pieces of the 1960s. Sculptor Claes Oldenburg presented an oddly designed movie projector that looked like the sphinx, placed it on the stage and projected light onto the audience. Video artist Nam June Paik, standing on a step-ladder behind a large opaque screen, over a period of hours, slowly cut out an ever-widening square revealing more of himself to the audience. I was sitting next to the artist Joan Miró, who was in town for a dinner in his honor that evening at the Museum of Modern Art. Despite the curator’s pleadings, Miró refused to budge and sat through the entire performance.

It was during this period that I first became cognizant of science. The artists, unlike their literary counterparts, were avidly interested in, and reading, the scientists. I started reading books by physicists Jeans, Eddington, Einstein, and poets such as Wallace Stevens, who had deep insights into ideas in the sciences. I received an invitation to meet with Marshall McLuhan. I recall that we talked a lot about his theme that art can serve as a beacon — a distant early warning system that can tell the old culture what is beginning to happen, to interpret what scientists are doing. The value was not in explanation, or the popularizing of science; rather, it was in description, rendering visible the questions the scientists were asking.

Twenty-seven years later, in 1992, in an essay entitled "The Emerging Third Culture," I put forth the following argument:

The third culture consists of those scientists and other thinkers in the empirical world who, through their work and expository writing, are taking the place of the traditional intellectual in rendering visible the deeper meanings of our lives, redefining who and what we are.

In the past few years, the playing field of American intellectual life has shifted, and the traditional intellectual has become increasingly marginalized. A 1950s education in Freud, Marx, and modernism is not a sufficient qualification for a thinking person in the 1990s. Indeed, the traditional American intellectuals are, in a sense, increasingly reactionary, and quite often proudly (and perversely) ignorant of many of the truly significant intellectual accomplishments of our time. Their culture, which dismisses science, is often nonempirical. It uses its own jargon and washes its own laundry. It is chiefly characterized by comment on comments, the swelling spiral of commentary eventually reaching the point where the real world gets lost.

Today, that fossil culture continues to decline, replaced by the emergent “third culture” of the essay’s title, a reference to C. P. Snow’s celebrated division of the thinking world into two cultures — that of the literary intellectual and that of the scientist. What we witnessed in 1992 was the passing of the torch from one group of thinkers, the traditional literary intellectuals, to a new group, the intellectuals of the emerging third culture. Since then, what traditionally had been called “science” has become “public culture.”

Something radically new is in the air: new ways of understanding physical systems, new ways of thinking about thinking that call into question many of our basic assumptions. A realistic biology of the mind, advances in evolutionary biology, physics, information technology, genetics, neurobiology, psychology, engineering, the chemistry of materials: all are questions of critical importance with respect to what it means to be human. For the first time, we have the tools and the will to undertake the scientific study of human nature.

"Nobody ever voted for the telephone, the automobile, for printing, for television, or for electricity," I wrote in 1969.

And science-based reality continues: nobody voted for the the computational idea, for cybernetics, for the mathematical theory of information (i.e. the digital universe), for the Internet. Governments, politicians, operating through rear-view mirrors, can only play catch up. Science is the big news. Science is the important story.

In 1997, through the nonprofit Edge Foundation, Inc., I founded Edge (www.edge.org) a website and online salon, inhabited by the leading lights of the third culture. On Edge you you have at your fingertips a general science education from what Denis Dutton, founder and editor of Arts & Letters Daily, (www.aldaily.com) has called "The greatest virtual research university in the world". Or, as recently noted by The Observer: a "global online Royal Society." (See: "Edge in the News")

Every year I ask the third culture thinkers on Edge a question. This year, I asked Arianna if she would like to share the event with the readers of Huffington Post.

The Edge Annual Question — 2006

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WHAT IS YOUR DANGEROUS IDEA?

The history of science is replete with discoveries that were considered socially, morally, or emotionally dangerous in their time; the Copernican and Darwinian revolutions are the most obvious. What is your dangerous idea? An idea you think about (not necessarily one you originated) that is dangerous not because it is assumed to be false, but because it might be true?

What you will find emerging out of the 117 essays written in response to the 2006 Edge Question — "What is your dangerous idea?" — are indications of a new natural philosophy, founded on the realization of the import of complexity, of evolution. Very complex systems — whether organisms, brains, the biosphere, or the universe itself — were not constructed by design; all have evolved. There is a new set of metaphors to describe ourselves, our minds, the universe, and all of the things we know in it.

A few years ago, I had the wonderful opportunity to meet with Ernst Mayr, the legendary biologist known as "the Darwin of the 20th Century" who recently died at the age of 100. Attempting to explain the third culture to a man who received in Ph.D. from Berlin University in 1925 is a daunting task. But Mayr, who was still sharp as a tack, didn’t miss a beat.

“Oh, I get it,” he said. “It’s a conversation!”

Welcome to Edge. Welcome to "dangerous ideas". Welcome to the conversation!

Happy New Year!

JB

p.s. Thanks to Steven Pinker for suggesting the Edge Annual Question — 2006.

[Click here for the Edge Annual Question 2006]

p.p.s. Here is the annotated table of contents for the 72,500 word document:

MARTIN REES
President, The Royal Society; Professor of
Cosmology & Astrophysics, Master, Trinity
College, University of Cambridge; Author, Our
Final Century: The 50/50 Threat to Humanity's
Survival
>Science may be 'running out of control'

J. CRAIG VENTER
Genomics Researcher; Founder & President, J. Craig Venter Science Foundation
>Revealing the genetic basis of personality and
>behavior will create societal conflicts

LEO CHALUPA
Ophthalmologist and Neurobiologist, University of California, Davis
>A 24-hour period of absolute solitude

V.S. RAMACHANDRAN
Neuroscientist; Director, Center for Brain and
Cognition, University of California, San Diego;
Author, A Brief Tour of Human Consciousness
>Francis Crick's "Dangerous Idea"

DAVID BUSS
Psychologist, University of Texas, Austin;
Author, The Murderer Next Door: Why the Mind is
Designed to Kill
>The Evolution of Evil

PAUL BLOOM
Psychologist, Yale University; Author, Descartes' Baby
>There are no souls

PAUL W. EWALD
Evolutionary Biologist; Director, Program in
Evolutionary Medicine, University of Louisville;
Author, Plague Time
>A New of the Golden Age of Medicine

BART KOSKO
Professor, Electrical Engineering, USC; Author, Heaven in a Chip
>Most bell curves have thick tails

MATT RIDLEY
Science Writer; Founding chairman of the
International Centre for Life; Author, The Agile
Gene: How Nature Turns on Nature
>Government is the problem not the solution

DAVID PIZARRO
Psychologist, Cornell University
>Hodgepodge Morality

RANDOPLH M. NESSE
Psychiatrist, University of Michigan; Coauthor
(with George Williams), Why We Get Sick: The New
Science of Darwinian Medicine
>Unspeakable Ideas

GREGORY BENFORD
Physicist, UC Irvine; Author, Deep Time
>Think outside the Kyoto box

MARCO IACOBONI
Neuroscientist; Director, Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation Lab, UCLA
>Media Violence Induces Imitative Violence: The Problem With Super Mirrors

BARRY C. SMITH
Philosopher, Birbeck, University of London; Coeditor, Knowing Our Own Minds
>What We Know May Not Change Us

PHILIP W. ANDERSON
Physicist, Princeton University; Nobel Laureate
in Physics 1977; Author, Economy as a Complex
Evolving System
>Dark Energy might not exist

TIMOTHY TAYLOR
Archaeologist, University of Bradford; Author, The Buried Soul
>The human brain is a cultural artefact

OLIVER MORTON
Chief News and Features Editor at Nature; Author, Mapping Mars
>Our planet is not in peril

SAMUEL BARONDES
Neurobiologist and Psychiatrist, University of
California San Francisco; Author, Better Than
Prozac
>Using Medications To Change Personality

DAVID BODANIS
Writer, Consultant; Author: The Electric Universe
>The hyper-Islamicist critique of the West as a
>decadent force that is already on a downhill
>course might be true

NICHOLAS HUMPHREY
Psychologist, London School of Economics; Author, The Mind Made Flesh
>"It is undesirable to believe in a proposition
>when there is no ground whatever for supposing
>it true"

ERIC FISCHL
Artist, New York City; Mary Boone Gallery
>If the unknown becomes known

STANISLAS DEHEANE
Cognitive Neuropsychology Researcher, Institut
National de la Santé, Paris; Author, The Number
Sense
>Touching and pushing the limits of the human brain

JOEL GARREAU
Cultural Revolution Correspondent, Washington Post ; Author, Radical Evolution
>Suppose Faulkner was right?

HELEN FISHER
Research Professor, Department of Anthropology,
Rutgers University; Author, Why We Love
>Serotonin-enhancing antidepressants (such as
>Prozac and many others) can jeopardize feelings
>of romantic love, feelings of attachment to a
>spouse or partner, one's fertility and one's
>genetic future

PAUL DAVIES
Physicist, Macquarie University, Sydney; Author, How to Build a Time Machine
>The fight against global warming is lost

APRIL GORNIK
Artist, New York City; Danese Gallery
>Great art makes itself vulnerable to interpretation
JAMSHED BHARUCHA
Professor of Psychology, Provost, Senior Vice President, Tufts University
>The more we discover about cognition and the
>brain, the more we will realize that education
>as we know it does not accomplish what we
>believe it does

JORDAN POLLACK
Computer Scientist, Brandeis University
>Science as just another Religion

JUAN ENRIQUEZ
CEO, Biotechonomy; Founding Director, Harvard
Business School's Life Sciences Project; Author,
The Untied States of America
>Technology can untie the U.S.

STEPHEN M. KOSSLYN
Psychologist, Harvard University; Author, Wet Mind
>A Science of the Divine?

JERRY COYNE
Evolutionary Biologist; Professor, Department of
Ecology and Evolution, University of Chicago;
Author (with H. Allen Orr), Speciation
>Many behaviors of modern humans were genetically
>hard-wired (or soft-wired) in our distant
>ancestors by natural selection

ERNST PÖPPEL
Neuroscientist, Chairm Board of Directors, Human
Science Center and Department of Medical
Psychology, Munich University, Germany; Author,
Mindworks
>My belief in science

GEOFFREY MILLER
Evolutionary Psychologist, University of New Mexico; Author, The Mating Mind
>Runaway consumerism explains the Fermi Paradox

ROBERT SHAPIRO
Professor Emeritus, Senior Research Scientist,
Department of Chemistry, New York University.
Author, Planetary Dreams
>We shall understand the origin of life within the next 5 years

KAI KRAUSE
Researcher, philosopher, software developer,
Author: 3DScience: new Scanning Electron
Microscope imagery
>Anty Gravity: Chaos Theory in an all too practical sense

CARLO ROVELLI
Professor of Physics, University of the
Mediterraneum, Marseille; Member, Intitut
Universitaire de France: Author, Quantum Gravity
>What the physics of the 20th century says about
>the world might in fact be true
RICHARD DAWKINS
Evolutionary Biologist, Charles Simonyi Professor
For The Understanding Of Science, Oxford
University; Author, The Ancestor's Tale
>Let's all stop beating Basil's car

SETH LLOYD
Quantum Mechanical Engineer, MIT
>The genetic breakthrough that made people capable of ideas themselves

CAROLYN PORCO
Planetary Scientist; Director Cassini Imaging
Central Laboratory for Operations (CICLOPS),
Boulder CO; Adjunct Professor, University of
Colorado, University of Arizona
>The Greatest Story Ever Told

MICHAEL NESMITH
Artist, writer; Former cast member of "The
Monkees"; A Trustee and President of the Gihon
Foundation and a Trustee and Vice-Chair of the
American Film Institute
>Existence is Non-Time, Non-Sequential, and Non-Objective

LAWRENCE KRAUSS
Physicist, Case Western Reserve University; Author, Atom
>The world may fundamentally be inexplicable

DANIEL C. DENNETT
Philosopher; University Professor, Co-Director,
Center for Cognitive Studies, Tufts University;
Author, Freedom Evolves
>There aren't enough minds to house the population explosion of memes (to come)

DANIEL GILBERT
Psychologist, Harvard University
>The idea that ideas can be dangerous

ANDY CLARK
School of Philosophy, Psychology and Language Sciences, Edinburgh University
>The quick-thinking zombies inside us

SHERRY TURKLE
Psychologist, MIT; Author, Life on the Screen:
Identity in the Age of the Internet
>After several generations of living in the
>computer culture, simulation will become fully
>naturalized. Authenticity in the traditional
>sense loses its value, a vestige of another time.

STEVEN STROGATZ
Applied mathematician, Cornell University; Author, Sync
>The End of Insight

TERRENCE SEJNOWSKI
Computational Neuroscientist, Howard Hughes
Medical Institute; Coauthor, The Computational
Brain
>When will the Internet become aware of itself?

LYNN MARGULIS Biologist, University of
Massachusetts, Amherst; Coauthor (with Dorion
Sagan), Acquiring Genomes: A Theory of the
Origins of Species
>Bacteria are us

THOMAS METZINGER
Frankfurt Institute for Advanced Studies;
Johannes Gutenberg-Universität Mainz; President
German Cognitive Science Society; Author: Being
No One
>The Forbidden Fruit Intuition

DIANE F. HALPERN
Professor of Psychology, Claremont McKenna
College; Past-president (2005), the American
Psychological Association; Author, Thought and
Knowledge
>Choosing the sex of one's child

GARY MARCUS
Psychologist, New York University; Author, The Birth of the Mind
>Minds, genes, and machines

JARON LANIER
Computer Scientist and Musician
>Homuncular Flexibility

W. DANIEL HILLIS
Physicist, Computer Scientist; Chairman, Applied
Minds, Inc.; Author, The Pattern on the Stone
>The idea that we should all share our most dangerous ideas

NEIL GERSHENFELD
Physicist; Director, Center for Bits and Atoms,MIT; Author, Fab
>Democratizing access to the means of invention

PAUL STEINHARDT
Albert Einstein Professor of Science, Princeton University
>It's a matter of time

SAM HARRIS
Neuroscience Graduate Student, UCLA; Author, The End of Faith
>Science Must Destroy Religion

SCOTT ATRAN
Anthropologist, University of Michigan; Author, In God's We Trust
>Science encourages religion in the long run (and vice versa)

MARCELO GLEISER
Physicist, Dartmouth College; Author, The Prophet and the Astronomer
>Can science explain itself?

DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF
Media Analyst; Documentary Writer; Author, Get
Back in the Box : Innovation from the Inside Out
>Open Source Currency

JUDITH RICH HARRIS
Independent Investigator and Theoretician; Author, The Nurture Assumption
>The idea of zero parental influence

ALUN ANDERSON
Senior Consultant, New Scientist
>Brains cannot become minds without bodies

TODD E. FEINBERG, M.D.
Psychiatrist and Neurologist, Albert Einstein
College of Medicine; Author, Altered Egos
>Myths and fairy tales are not true

STEWART BRAND
Founder, Whole Earth Catalog, cofounder; The
Well; cofounder, Global Business Network; Author,
How Buildings Learn
>What if public policy makers have an obligation
>to engage historians, and historians have an
>obligation to try to help?

JARED DIAMOND
Biologist; Geographer, UCLA; Author, Collapse
>The evidence that tribal peoples often damage their environments and make war

LEONARD SUSSKIND
Physicist, Stanford University; Author, The Cosmic Landscape
>The "Landscape"

GERALD HOLTON
Mallinckrodt Professor of Physics and Professor
of the History of Science, Emeritus, Harvard
University; Author, Thematic Origins of
Scientific Thought
>The medicination of the ancient yearning for immortality

CHARLES SEIFE
Professor of Journalism, New York University;
formerly journalist, Science magazine; Author,
Zero: The Biography Of A Dangerous Idea
>Nothing

KARL SABBAGH
Writer and Television Producer; Author, The Riemann Hypothesis
>The human brain and its products are incapable
>of understanding the truths about the universe

RUPERT SHELDRAKE
Biologist, London; Author of The Presence of the Past
>A sense of direction involving new scientific principles

TOR NØRRETRANDERS
Science Writer; Consultant; Lecturer, Copenhagen; Author, The User Illusion
>Social Relativity

JOHN HORGAN
Science Writer; Author, Rational Mysticism
>We Have No Souls

ERIC R. KANDEL
Biochemist and University Professor, Columbia
University; Recipient, The Nobel Prize, 2000;
Author, Cellular Basis of Behavior
>Free will is exercised unconsciously, without awareness

DANIEL GOLEMAN
Psychologist; Author, Emotional Intelligence
>Cyber-disinhibition

BRIAN GREENE
Physicist & Mathematician, Columbia University;
Author, The Fabric of the Cosmos; Presenter,
three-part Nova program, The Elegant Universe
>The Multiverse

DAVID GELERNTER
Computer Scientist, Yale University; Chief
Scientist, Mirror Worlds Technologies; Author,
Drawing Life
>What are people well-informed about in the Information Age?

MAHZARIN R. BANAJI
Professor of Psychology, Harvard University
>We do not (and to a large extent, cannot) know
>who we are through introspection

RODNEY BROOKS
Director, MIT Computer Science and Artificial
Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL); Chief Technical
Officer of iRobot Corporation; author Flesh and
Machines
>Being alone in the universe

LEE SMOLIN
Physicist, Perimeter Institute; Author, Three Roads to Quantum Gravity
>Seeing Darwin in the light of Einstein; seeing Einstein in the light of Darwin

ALISON GOPNIK
Psychologist, UC-Berkeley; Coauthor, The Scientist In the Crib
>A cacophony of "controversy"

KEVIN KELLY
Editor-At-Large, Wired; Author, New Rules for the New Economy
>More anonymity is good

DENIS DUTTON
Professor of the philosophy of art, University of
Canterbury, New Zealand, editor of Philosophy and
Literature and Arts & Letters Daily
>A "grand narrative"

SIMON BARON-COHEN
Psychologist, Autism Research Centre, Cambridge
University; Author, The Essential Difference
>A political system based on empathy

FREEMAN DYSON
Physicist, Institute of Advanced Study, Author, Disturbing the Universe
>Biotechnology will be thoroughly domesticated in the next fifty years

GREGORY COCHRAN
Consultant in adaptive optics and an adjunct
professor of anthropology at the University of
Utah
>There is something new under the sun - us

GEORGE B. DYSON
Science Historian; Author, Project Orion
>Understanding molecular biology without discovering the origins of life

KEITH DEVLIN
Mathematician; Executive Director, Center for the
Study of Language and Information, Stanford;
Author, The Millennium Problems
>We are entirely alone

FRANK TIPLER
Professor of Mathematical Physics, Tulane
University; Author, The Physics of Immortality
>Why I Hope the Standard Model is Wrong about Why
>There is More Matter Than Antimatter

SCOTT SAMPSON
Chief Curator, Utah Museum of Natural History;
Associate Professor Department of Geology and
Geophysics, University of Utah; Host, Dinosaur
Planet TV series
>The purpose of life is to disperse energy

JEREMY BERNSTEIN
Professor of Physics, Stevens Institute of
Technology; Author, Hitler's Uranium Club
The idea that we understand plutonium

MIHALYI CSIKSZENTMIHALYI
Psychologist; Director, Quality of Life Research
Center, Claremont Graduate University; Author,
Flow
>The free market

IRENE PEPPERBERG
Research Associate, Psychology, Harvard University; Author, The Alex Studies
>The differences between humans and nonhumans are quantitative, not qualitative

BRIAN GOODWIN
Biologist, Schumacher College, Devon, UK; Author,
How The Leopard Changed Its Spots
>Fields of Danger

RUDY RUCKER
Mathematician, Computer Scientist; CyberPunk
Pioneer; Novelist; Author, Lifebox, the Seashell,
and the Soul
>Mind is a universally distributed quality

STEVEN PINKER
Psychologist, Harvard University; Author, The Blank Slate
>Groups of people may differ genetically in their
>average talents and temperaments

RICHARD E. NISBETT
Professor of Psychology, Co-Director of the
Culture and Cognition Program, University of
Michigan; Author, The Geography of Thought: How
Asians and Westerners Think Differently. . . And
Why
>Telling More Than We Can Know

ROBERT R. PROVINE
Psychologist and Neuroscientist, University of Maryland; Author, Laughter
>This is all there is

DONALD HOFFMAN
Cognitive Scientist, UC, Irvine; Author, Visual Intelligence
>A spoon is like a headache

MARC D. HAUSER
Psychologist and Biologist, Harvard University: Author, Wild Minds
>A universal grammar of [mental] life

RAY KURZWEIL
Inventor and Technologist; Author, The
Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology
>The near-term inevitability of radical life extension and expansion

HAIM HARARI
Physicist, former President, Weizmann Institute of Science
>Democracy may be on its way out

DAVID G. MYERS
Social Psychologist; Co-author (with Letha
Scanzoni); What God has Joined Together: A
Christian Case for Gay Marriage
>A marriage option for all

CLAY SHIRKY
Social & Technology Network Topology Researcher;
Adjunct Professor, NYU Graduate School of
Interactive Telecommunications Program (ITP)
>Free will is going away

MICHAEL SHERMER
Publisher of Skeptic magazine, monthly columnist
for Scientific American; Author, Science Friction
>Where goods cross frontiers, armies won't

ARNOLD TREHUB
Psychologist, University of Massachusetts, Amherst; Author, The Cognitive Brain
>Modern science is a product of biology

ROGER C. SCHANK
Psychologist & Computer Scientist; Chief Learning
Officer, Trump University; Author, Making Minds
Less Well Educated than Our Own
>No More Teacher's Dirty Looks

SUSAN BLACKMORE
Psychologist and Skeptic; Author, Consciousness: An Introduction
>Everything is pointless

DAVID LYKKEN
Behavioral geneticist and Emeritus Professor of
Psychology, University of Minnesota; Author,
Happiness
>Laws requiring parental licensure

CLIFFORD PICKOVER
Author, Sex, Drugs, Einstein, and Elves
>We are all virtual

JOHN ALLEN PAULOS
Professor of Mathematics, Temple University,
Philadelphia; Author, A Mathematician Plays the
Stock Market
>The self is a conceptual chimera

JAMES O'DONNELL
Classicist; Cultural Historian; Provost,
Georgetown University; Author, Avatars of the Word
>Marx was right: the "state" will evaporate and
>cease to have useful meaning as a form of human
>organization

PHILIP ZIMBARDO
Professor Emeritus of Psychology at Stanford University; Author: Shyness
>The banality of evil is matched by the banality of heroism

RICHARD FOREMAN
Founder & Director, Ontological-Hysteric Theater
>Radicalized relativity

JOHN GOTTMAN
Psychologist; Founder of Gottman Institute; Author, The Mathematics of Marriage
>Emotional intelligence

PIET HUT
Professor of Astrophysics, Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton
>A radical reevaluuation of the character of time

DAN SPERBER
Social and cognitive scientist, CNRS, Paris; author, Explaining Culture
>Culture is natural

MARTIN E.P. SELIGMAN
Psychologist, University of Pennsylvania, Author, Authentic Happiness
>Relativism

HOWARD GARDNER
Psychologist, Harvard University; Author, Changing Minds
>Following Sisyphus, not Pandora