Not on the edge. In the edge. On the edge implies an angle, a shallowness perhaps. In the edge conveys the depth and volume of what self-described cultural impresario John Brockman has termed The Third Culture. I’ve been a sideline fan of Brockman’s work, who has built a name for himself as an author, editor, and book agent to cultural popularizers of science, principally through reading the online repository of ideas and exchanges at www.edge.org.
As a term, The Third Culture owes its derivation to the second edition of an essay penned by C.P. Snow, The Two Cultures: A Second Look, in 1963. The two cultures, or more aptly two camps, were the scientists and the literati. Snow predicted that a new “third” culture would emerge to close the communications gap between literary intellectualism and science. Although Brockman conscripted Snow’s phrase, Edge does not present a third culture in which literary intellectuals are communicating with scientists. In this Edge, scientists are communicating directly with the general public.
As Brockman describes it, “Traditional intellectual media played a vertical game: journalists wrote up and professors wrote down. Today, third- culture thinkers tend to avoid the middleman and endeavor to express their deepest thoughts in a manner accessible to the intelligent reading public.”
For the past 13 years, with the input of his trusted advisors, Brockman has tossed out a question to his Third Culture headliners to ponder. Here is the list thus far, with the last six topics having been compiled and published in softbook form and referenced in The Edge:
1998: What Questions Are You Asking Yourself?
1999: What Is The Most Important Invention In The Past 2000 Years… And Why?
2000: What Is Today’s Most Important Unreported Story
2001: What Now?
2002: What’s Your Question?
2003: What Are The Pressing Scientific Issues for the Nation and the World, and What Is Your Advice on How I Can Begin to Deal With Them?
2004: What’s Your Law?
2005: What Do You Believe Is True Even Though You Cannot Prove It?
2006: What Is Your Dangerous Idea?
2007: What Are You Optimistic About
2008: What Have You Changed Your Mind About? Why?
2009: What Will Change Everything?
2010: How Is The Internet Changing The Way You Think?
WHAT SCIENTIFIC CONCEPT WOULD IMPROVE EVERYBODY’S COGNITIVE TOOLKIT?
Here is Brockman’s qualifier to the question: The term “scientific is to be understood in a broad sense as the most reliable way of gaining knowledge about anything, whether it be the human spirit, the role of great people in history, or the structure of DNA. A “scientific concept” may come from philosophy, logic, economics, jurisprudence, or other analytic enterprises, as long as it is a rigorous conceptual tool that may be summed up succinctly (or “in a phrase”) but has broad application to understanding the world.
Discuss amongst yourselves, and after you’ve given it some thought, take a look at how others living in the edge have answered the question.