John Brockman: The Genius's Genius
Volume 6, Issue 4, Summer 2006
“Cultural impresario” is how John Brockman’s page on Edge (http://www.edge.org) describes him, and if you’re not already acquainted with his body (or bodies) of work, you might be tempted to find the moniker pretentious. What is one to make of a man whose career has encompassed the avant-garde art world, science, books, software, and the Internet; a man who coined the term “intermedia” and has consulted for clients ranging from Columbia Pictures to the Pentagon, from General Electric to the White House; a man who throws a party (as he did earlier this year) to which the likes of Brian Eno, Ian McEwan, and Richard Dawkins show up; a man who looks both bemused and supremely confident beneath his panama hat? Well, first off, one might wonder why Brockman is wearing only one hat.
Back in 1988, he co-founded the non-profit Edge Foundation, Inc. to “promote inquiry into and discussion of intellectual, philosophical, artistic, and literary issues, as well as to work for the intellectual and social achievement of society”— seemingly lofty goals which Brockman seems nevertheless to bear
lightly. His chief career, if he had to pick just one, is literary agent, and he has represented such luminaries as Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Jared Diamond, and Sir Martin Rees, as well as three Nobel prize winners and virtually every other famous popular scientist one could name. Indeed, he is perhaps the person most responsible for bringing science to a popular audience.
If Brockman’s success as a literary agent was initially attributable to the circles in which he circulated oh-so-deftly, the Edge has only extended his reach. The Edge is not so much the “Internet as highbrow cocktail party,” as it is the “Internet as Center for Advanced Studies.” Here, Brockman and the leading thinkers in a raft of scientific and social disciplines exchange ideas and build theories…and we get to watch.
“Intellectuals are not just people who know things, but people who shape the thoughts of their generation. An intellectual is a synthesizer, a publicist, a communicator,” Brockman says. “What we are witnessing is a passing of the torch from one group of thinkers, the traditional literary intellectuals, to a new group, the intellectuals of the emerging Third Culture.”
Brockman has both a new book slated for spring release and another just out in paperback. The first, Intelligent Thought: Science versus the Intelligent Design Movement, is a collection of essays discussing the merits—or lack thereof—of “intelligent design” at a time when courts, statehouses, and family dinner tables are given over to the controversy. He has gathered an impressive list of thinkers (fresh from the Edge’s roster) including the aforementioned Dennett and Dawkins, as well as Frank J. Sulloway, Stuart A. Kauffman, and Steven Pinker to discuss evolution, “much more than a foundational concept of a scientist’s work,” but “a thing of beauty, grandeur, and significance.”
His other book, What We Believe but Cannot Prove: Today’s Leading Thinkers on Science in the Age of Certainty, grew out of his annual custom of asking a provocative question of 100 leading thinkers, in this case soliciting micro-essays about the personal theories his respondents cannot demonstrate with certainty. The book walks an interesting line—since most of the writers are scientists, there is some trepidation and reluctance about offering beliefs that, by definition, cannot be proven. Still, Brockman’s colleagues come through with flying colors, addressing everything from economic inequality to free will.
Brockman’s work has been to midwife the best work of others and to get it out to the rest of us. “There is a new set of metaphors to describe ourselves, our minds, the universe, and all of the things we know in it, and it is the intellectuals with these new ideas and images—those scientists doing things and writing their own books—who drive our times,” he has written. Brockman may not be a scientist himself, but he is that rare creature—a synthesizer, a salon host, and a genius’s genius. ■
First published by the Reader's Choice Newsletter, Volume 6, Issue 4 Summer 2006.