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Brain Trust

Forward thinking and other ideas for the future described by today's greatest scientists

By Gaetano Prisciantelli 1.8.2010

"Between Possible and Imaginary" is the theme of the Science Festival which opens in Rome next week. The American popularizer John Brockman collected the forecasts of the greatest living minds about ideas that will change everything during their lifetime. From DNA to education, the book illustrates surprising and provocative discoveries from the world that await us.

In a photo dating back to the 1960s John Brockman appears in profile, standing between Andy Warhol, the father of Pop Art, and Bob Dylan. Born in Boston around twenty years earlier, Brockman went to New York for studying Economics at Columbia University and in those years he started to to become interested in Computer Science, Astronomy and Artificial Intelligence while attending a group of New York artists. Today he is the owner of a literary agency that represents personalities such as psychologist Daniel Goleman (author of the famous Emotional Intelligence) and the zoologist Jared Diamond, who wrote Guns, Germs and Steel, the book that introduced readers around the world to the idea that political and economic balances are historically related to biological and environmental dynamics (the book gained the author a Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction).

Growing up as the son of a flowers trader, Brockman developed a special flair for new ideas. During the Eighties he prospered  agenting computer books. In 1997 he launched, a successful website that hosts debates and interviews about science. Two years ago, well in advance of the economic crisis, he represented the book of Nassim Taleb, The Black Swan, dedicated to risk assessment and unpredictable events.


An unusual figure of the cultural panorama, next January 14th at 9 pm Brockman will take part in the Rome Science Festival where, along with the science historian George Dyson, he will give a lecture titled "Turing’s Cathedral and the Digital Universe" dedicated to the father of computing, Alan Turing, and the progress of computing in recent decades. "Back in the Sixties," says Brockman, "if you said that the brain is like a computer people would look at you like you just were crazy. But nowadays it is already old-fashioned to say that."


As if anticipating the theme of the event in Rome (Between Possible and Imaginary. Technological magic and scientific research), his recent books are constantly sketching future scenarios. In the US he recently published a volume containing the contributions of dozens of intellectuals who answered the question "What game-changing scientific ideas and developments do you expect to live to see?"


Among those who answered is physicist Freeman Dyson, who dreams of seeing a device that can transfer thoughts from one brain to another; and there is the editor of Wired magazine, Chris Anderson, who envisions a radical transformation of education systems made possible by the Internet. This response almost anticipates the central topic of the next of Brockman's questions, published today on the website Edge: "How is the Internet changing the way you think?"


Asking questions is the defining feature of Brockman's style. "I'd rather let the world speak for itself than talk about it. I think my role is to keep things alive by letting the works speak, rather than being in front of everything. This, I think, is also part of this universe of artistic endeavor of the art of the Sixties."


What led you from Pop Art to what you do today?


"At the time, the Factory, Warhol's headquarters in New York, was the kind of place where you stop off and see what is happening. And I was there literally every day. So, in 1965 I found myself directing the Expanded Cinema Festival, an exhibition of artworks inspired by the movies. During those days I was in contact with artists who followed scientific theories on space and cybernetics. Shortly thereafter I had the great fortune to be invited to join a group of young artists that would have dinner with John Cage periodically over the year. Cage would cook mushroom recipes and then attend the dinner. We would talk about ideas that ultimately anticipated the Internet and what the Internet culture is all about. And this happened at a time when people that were considered intellectuals exclusively dealt with Freud, Marx and modernism. Science did not have a place at the table."


Does the success of represent the end of that marginalization?


"Every year 6-7 million people visit the website, but that is not a site for everyone. To read, for example, a text by Marvin Minsky, one of the fathers of artificial intelligence, one must have had a smattering of the topics it covers. Just like if you are taking a PhD in Shakespeare you would have taken courses in high school and college about Shakespeare."


The books you promote, however, reach millions of people ...


"Sure, but without giving an inch on scientific rigor. The objective is not to reach the general public at all costs. "


What is the aim of the site, then?


"I would say that what I'm doing with Edge is a conversation. A few years ago I went to do a videotape interview to the late Ernst Mayr, a biologist, who died some years ago. He was a 97 year old guy [MAN] who did not have a computer and I started to describe what Edge is, explaining what we are doing. And after ten seconds he stopped me, and said 'I get it, I get it: it's a conversation.' And it is a conversation between people who have something to say about specific topics, which illustrate their research in their voices, but in a readable form. "


In a figurative way, "edge"also means "border". Does it refer to the boundary between what we know and what we do not know?


"In a sense, yes. In my interviews with scientists, I start off asking: what are the questions you are asking yourself? And that is it. What I am trying to get is the most sophisticated people in the world to talk about their questions. I don't for a minute think that the scientists I work with have answers that we have to listen to in terms of your daily life, or my daily life. What we get from the scientists that I work with is the quality of the questions. Which is breathtaking."■

First published by il venerdi di Repubblica magazine, January 8, 2012.

"I'd rather let the world speak for itself than talk about it."

EVENTS Experts from different countries will take part in the Roman event dedicated to science. Where entertainment will also have a place

The fifth edition of the Science Festival will start next January 13th. The theme this year is Between the possible and the imaginary.  Technological magic and scientific research. The pogramme, that runs until Sunday Jan. 17th, includes debates, lectures and scientific cafés designed for different discipline and aimed at different age groups. On the first day, the virologist Ilaria Capua will discuss the relevance of scientific thought with the sociologist of science Massimiano Bucchi, while the anthropologist and geneticist Luigi Luca Cavalli Sforza will animate a debate on technology scenarios with Enrico Bellone and Telmo Pievani. Experts like robot engineer Gianmarco Veruggio, Mark Cutkosky, from Stanford University, and Amir Shapiro, from the University of the Negev, Israel, will discuss robots, artificial intelligence and ethics. The schedule also includes shows like that of Wednesday 13th, by the Motel Connection, entitled "HEROIN - Return of Human Environmental Output / Input Network”. Friday January 15th and Saturday 16th astrophysicist Margherita Hack will be involved in a Concert for astrophysics and radio telescopes with an ensemble of musicians.

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