Saturday 9 January 2016


John Brockman was born in 1941 in Boston and has been an active agent for change and a facilitator of dialogue especially in science and at the Arts-Science borrrrder.  He doesn't seem to have done any primary scientific research himself but knows a lot of the movers and shakers. Somewhere along the way I've acquired a copy of his When we were kids: how a child becomes a scientist [Jonathan Cape 2004]. I really like this book, not least because Brockman is a very light editor and lets real scientists talk about their formative years. If you have a child, you might with advantage read such a book and tilt the process in your home so that your kid is exposed to science as a way of knowing.  That book features, for example Blobistas like Alison Gopnik, Lynn Margulis, Steven Pinker, VS Ramachandran.  It also has a chapter by Marc Hauser, Harvard Wunderkind,who has since been drummed out of the regiment after a spectacular fall from grace.  In 2014, I wrote crossly about that fall and Brockman's unseemly scrabble to distance himself from the bad apple by purging the historical record. tsk!

Brockman has given a lot of traction to science-in-the-public-domain by setting up the Edge Foundation which holds periodical seminars in which the usual suspects get together round a table in some salubrious setting to talk about science and the interface between Science and the Arts and between science and popular culture. The suspects are likely to include cool-tech musicos like Peter Gabriel or Brian Eno.  These seminars are edited and broadcast on the interweb and they're often worth listening to if you like your information in chunks longer than a tweet. For the last several years, the Edge has been able to monetize the intellectual ferment by asking an Annual Question and publishing the answers in hard-copy.  They don't ask you or me, they ask those scientists who are gabby enough to have a presence in Brockman's circle of friends . . . the sort of chaps [yes, very often chaps] who are asked to give TED talks.  The model is essentially the same as When we were kids: ask successful STEM-folks their opinion on X, edit the answers and order an initial print-run of 20,000 running up to Christmas.

They had a really good question in 2008 What have you changed your mind about and why?  I clipped all 166 answers off the interweb and clagged them into a monster PDF which I then sent it to all my techy pals. Few had the patience/stamina to read it. But that's a really important question because it indicates that real thought has been going down rather than re-churning our old certainties about gravity; the non-existence of god; the biological world being shaped by evolution.  That's why a symposium among/with some monster-minds from disparate fields has the potential to generate something new. At scientific conferences, and TED fests, and Edge symposia, the really  interesting interchange happens off camera over beers rather than at the plenary session in the big auditorium.  Although attendance at the plenary session is also an essential part of the process: your reaction to and extrapolation form the talks by the Young Turks on stage is the stuff of progress.

I'm clearly conflicted about John Brockman and The Edge.  I bought a copy of This will Make You Smarter the book of the 2011 question What scientific concept will improve everybody's cognitive toolkit?  I never read it.  I can't find it on my bookshelves so I may have given it to some young scientist when they survived their PhD viva. There's only so much of reading other men's flowers that is tolerable or useful. I'm more and more convinced that you need to smell the people you have dialogue with: the pheromones are somehow important for tuning the crap-detector.  Another problem with the format is that there are no citations and no references, so while you might be stoked to hear what maverick gerontologist Aubery de Grey has to say about next-generation antibiotics, the piece provides no leads to follow up the ideas, but thank god for The Blob: read this.

I must say I find the 2016 Question What do you consider the most interesting recent scientific news what makes it important? deeply unimaginative. Whatever we might gain from hearing about the thoughts of some of the smartest folk in the room, we can get less from their thoughts about the thoughts of someone who is not in the room. If I didn't read 2011 having paid ready money, I'm not going to do more than dip into 2016 and advise you to do the same.  It is entirely possible that the 194 contributors are not tribbing people outside the conference marquee - they are rather clapping each other on the back for being the mirror of their own brilliance. Then again <confliction alert> you could do worse than read Robert Sapolsky, Edge stalwart, being impassioned, erudite, articulate on Ebola and Science.  Or if you are a scientist who has published something in 2015, you might reflect, like Judith Rich Harris, on the truthiness of science: "There are too many journals publishing too many papers. Most of what's in them is useless, boring, or wrong."   Hmmm, boring question, answers on the button.

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