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Tear Down All the Statues!

By Jörg Blech & Johann Grolle 2.21.2000

The New York literary agent John Brockman on the business of books about science and scientists who as writers become stars.

Speaking about himself John Brockman declares, "Every ten years I have an idea." Turned down by 17 universities because of miserable grades, he has with luck found a true place to study. Just after receiving a business degree in the mid-sixties, Brockman, now 58, went to New York with the idea of becoming an art producer and impresario, and he began to organize film festivals.


In 1967 he, with some friends, opened a multimedia disco in an airplane hangar, worked as a promoter in a company making feminine hygiene products, and became a groupie of Andy Warhol. A little later the man with the Italian felt hat dove into an attempt to become an author, with only moderate success.


Still, writing brought him to his best idea: to become a literary agent. On the difficult market for books about natural science he often secures his clients, writing scientists or science journalists, advances of six figures. Many of his authors become stars, like Daniel Goleman, whose Emotional Intelligence has up to this point sold more than 5 million copies. Whether it be evolution, cosmology, artificial intelligence, or the question of consciousness, if a book from the empire of science becomes a bestseller Brockman is almost always lurking in the background.

Because the internet is useful for his interests, he opened a virtual salon three years ago in which scientists debate ( At the end of 1998, Brockman asked what the most important invention of the last 2000 years was. He compiled a few of the answers into a book that is now being published by the Ullstein-Verlag. Many of his publishing successes, however, have not been repeated in Germany. Many a book that local publishers have bought from him for 200,000 Marks found hardly more than a thousand buyers here.

Spiegel: Mr. Brockman, what advice would you, as a literary agent, give to a German scientist, say a biologist or physicist?


Brockman: Go to Stanford! But not to study biology or physics there.


S: Rather?


B: In order to become familiar with other sciences. Whoever wants to know what is important today must go to America. Those insitutes are as busy as beehives. Everyone exchanges information. Even before Daniel Dennett sends his newest manuscript to his publisher, at least 50 colleagues have already read it-- and not only philosophers, but also neuroscientists, robotics developers, psychiatrists, and linguists. The authors with whom I work write their books for colleagues in many, many other disciplines. And for that reason, they must use a language that most everyone can understand.


S: And such a situation is successful only in the USA?


B: Such an exchange never takes place in Germany-- at the very least because one is not permitted to ask questions before he turns 40 years old.


S: Does that mean that you find German scientists to be uninteresting as authors?


B: It may be that many German scientists are capable of writing a bestseller with an edition of one million. But not many do so because they are anxious to pursue their academic duties.


S: Don't many American scientists find popular science disreputable and un-serious?


B: My goal is not the popularization of science, but to contribute to making scientific research understandable to a wide audience. These books, unlike textbooks, are intellectual adventures. They touch on the most important questions of our times.


S: But many of your authors don't even do research anymore, but just philosophize.


B: OK, so Richard Dawkins doesn't work in a laboratory anymore. But he expresses more than just opinions about old opinions, as happens in the literary world. Because in research, real work is accomplished. At the end, for example, stands a cloned sheep. And Dawkins has something to say about that, even if he himself didn't carry out the experiment.


S: Does science through people like him become a sort of pop-event?


B: Why not? I went to Scotland to meet the cloned sheep Dolly - a very moving moment. Changes caused by science are unbelievable. Soon it might be possible to sew a high-performance calculator into my shirt and to activate it by the warmth of my body. My authors are concerned precisely with such changes.


S: What was it that sparked your interest in science?


B: When I was in my mid-twenties I spent a lot of time together with artists in New York. And they read books by natural scientists. When I first encountered these researchers I noticed, "They have an even greater thirst for knowledge than any famous intellectual whom I met at the important [relevant?] New York parties." I remember especially well an evening with the composer John Cage. At some point he pulled a book on cybernetics by Norbert Weiner out of his bag and suggested, "You have to read this." This book was central for the development of computers and had a great impact on me. Science was full of ideas and questions; the literary world wasn't.


S: Why should one read about science? Does doing so make humanity better, or smarter?


B: No. The researchers don't offer any answers about life that the guy at the sausage stand wouldn't be ready to offer. But they ask incredibly interesting questions.


S: For example?


B: About the history of humanity, for example. One of my authors, Christopher Stringer in London, says that modern man spread out across the world from Africa beginning 100,000 years ago. Another, Milford Wolpoff from Michigan, suggests in contradiction to this idea the so-called Multiregional Hypothesis. According to this theory the original humans had already settled several continents a million years ago and began then to develop into the different races.


S: Fine, but what does this controversy matter?


B: Such debates change the world. A few leaders of the black community in New York, for example, side with Christopher Stringer, since his theory challenges the notion that there are natural differences among the races.


S: What is your roll in such a debate?


B: I don't assume a solid opinion. I love the debate; that's the real story.


S: In 1994 the book The Bell Curve created a great outrage by postulating the thesis that blacks have genetically determined lower intelligence quotients as whites. Would you take on such a book as an agent?


B: I have not yet turned down an idea for political reasons. Naturally I would have supported it. In response several wonderful books appeared like Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel. Or take Daniel Goleman's Emotional Intelligence: It was a huge success only because it said no to the concept of race, and because it revealed the IQ to be a false, artificial measure.


S: What do you think of "metaphysical" books? Frank Tippler's The Physics of Immortality, which is on your list, but doesn't have a lot to do with science.


B: Tippler extrapolates the laws of physics, and already other physicists have come and shot him down. Another example is Rupert Sheldrake's, Dogs That Know When Their Owners Are Coming Home …


S: In which he in all seriousness argues that dogs are clairvoyant.


B: A friend of mine, a physicist said to me, "If you make this book, I will never speak with you again." Also, Sir John Maddox, the former editor of the magazine Nature condemned Sheldrake's assertions - even though Sheldrake is a reputable scientist. He studied at Cambridge.


S: And whoever studies there can profess any sort of nonsense?


B: I don't play judge. Sheldrake's book is fascinating, and that's what counts for me. He presents experiments…


S: … that were absolutely never published in a scientific journal worth taking seriously.


B: Because of this he also encounters problems in the academic world. In Oxford people leave the room when he comes. I really find that amusing. Many researchers develop an almost religious attachment to their work.


S: Is science indebted to you in some way?


B: I don't think so. But it's different with authors. Before I came along, they earned almost nothing. Now they reach a much larger audience and earn real money. Many scientists in Europe don't have that pleasure. If that's really a mistake then I hereby apologize before the entire continent.


S: Do you have a recipe for success? What are the ingredients of a bestseller?


B: No one knows, and no one can find out until he has one. Now, for example, we have another: The Elegant Universe by Brian Greene. Every publisher, except for one said no. It deals with so-called superstring theory, a kind of formula for the universe that is so complicated that most of the experts themselves don't understand it. So why should I try to understand it? Brian is not only a physics professor, but also a very good-looking type who also still acts. The New York Times Magazine published six pages about him. Then he was invited onto television - and suddenly his book stood at the top of the bestseller lists. The theme is new, and that is most important.


S: The book has also brought about much frowning among his colleagues. Many people believe that he must decide: either a serious scientist or a celebrity.


B: Don't forget: What we're discussing here is a house. Greene now lives in a nice house.


S: How many proposals do you turn down?


B: Nearly all of them. I receive about ten packages a day. But only 50 to 60 books per year are realized. We find new authors often at the recommendation of older ones. Or I happen across something interesting in the newspaper. An example was George Smoot with Wrinkles in Time. When I heard that he had made a kind of snapshot of the big bang with satellites I jumped right on it. I was sitting in a hotel in Tokyo, read the headline and thought, "Here goes my day." I called Smoot up and flew directly back to New York. By the time I arrived, the proposal was already lying on my desk. Above all, it is important to be quick.


S: Smoot doesn't exactly work like a born writer. In such cases do you look for a ghostwriter?


B: Yes, of course. That time the typing came from Smoot himself.


S: What is it that decides if a theme lends itself to public debate?


B: When something in the world of science happens, I either know the decisive person himself, or someone who knows him/her. Publishers, on the other hand, are only looking to repeat yesterday's successes. In doing so they forget the factor of time: what is sold today was thought of by an author three years ago. I'd rather concentrate on what's happening today.


S: According to your concept, is there a place for new, exciting debates about science among researchers in the humanities?


B: I don't have anything against literature and culture. But many literary people and philosophers are proud that they don't understand science. I hate this smile, when one talks about science in certain New York circles. The physicist and Nobel Prize winner Murray Gell-Mann says, "Many scientists might not know Shakespeare very well, but at least they aren't proud of it." The affectation that any person assumes when he calls himself an intellectual is the problem.


S: Is there a way that the humanities and natural sciences might meet one another?


B: Tear down all of the statues! When one goes for a walk here in Munich, one sees all of these statues that remember death, violence, and war. All that these statues say to people in Munich or Berlin is, "Be careful to honor your history!" You are a product of this building or this statue. Who is supposed to be able to break out of this? Who is supposed to be free to postulate new and visionary ideas? ■

First published in German by Der Spiegel, February 21, 2000. Translation by Chris Williams.

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