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Postcards from the Edge

Michael Szpir

What would happen if you collected some of the planet's best minds in a single room and asked them to share their thoughts? One possible result is manifested in the virtual salon known as the—a Web site that publishes the e-mail exchanges between a coterie of (mostly) prominent thinkers brought together by literary agent John Brockman.

Every year since 1998, Brockman has asked the Edge participants a question to get them thinking. In the past they've responded to queries about "today's most important unreported story" and "the most important invention in the past two thousand years." The responses are generally written in an engaging, casual style (perhaps encouraged by the medium of e-mail), and are often fascinating and thought-provoking.

The question for 2002—"What is your question? Why?"—garnered several dozen responses. Some of the respondents' questions sound like those that might be posed by the average undergraduate in a late-night bull session, and others are more original, but nearly all of them are distinguished by the depth of the accompanying commentary. What follows is a sample of the problems and issues that some very clever people are concerned about (with my comments or elaborations in parentheses).

Lee Smolin (theoretical physicist): "What is time, and what is the right language to describe change, in a closed system like the universe, which contains all of its observers?" (Were the laws of nature just hanging around before the Big Bang, or do they also evolve?)

Samuel Barondes (psychiatrist): "What, me worry?" (Did Alfred E. Newman achieve nirvana or is there an optimum level of worry?)

Piet Hut (astrophysicist): "Could our lack of theoretical insight in some of the most basic questions in biology in general, and consciousness in particular, be related to us having missed a third aspect of reality, which upon discovery will be seen to always have been there, equally ordinary as space and time, but so far somehow overlooked in scientific descriptions?" (He suggests that we might stumble upon this other reality through some future challenge in engineering.)

Howard Morgan (entrepreneur): "What makes a genius, and how can we have more of them?" (Is Aldous Huxley's Brave New World on the horizon?)

Robert Aunger (evolutionary theorist): "Is technology going to 'wake up' or 'come alive' anytime in the future?" (Is Karel Capek's R.U.R. on the horizon?)

Robert Provine (psychologist): "What is real?" (Is physics just "neurophysics" or will we always be looking at Plato's shadows on the cave wall?)

John McCarthy (computer scientist): "How are behaviors encoded in DNA?" (This question elicited the greatest number of responses from other Edge participants. Obviously a hot-button issue.)

Richard Dawkins (zoologist): "How different could life have been?" (A play on the physicist's question: Could the universe be different than it is?)

Paul Davies (physicist): "Universe or multiverse, that is the question?" (E pluribus unum?)

Steve Grand (artificial-life researcher): Why do we continue to act as if the universe were constructed from nouns linked by verbs, when we know it is really constructed from verbs linked by nouns?" ("Life" and "mind" are obviously processes, but so are atoms, pizzas and whole civilizations.)

David Gelernter (computer scientist): "Why is religion so important to most Americans and so trivial to most intellectuals?" (Are the intellectuals missing something?)

George Dyson (eight-year-old grandson of physicist Freeman Dyson): "Why am I me?" (My personal favorite and perhaps one of the most profound questions on the list.)

These are all wonderful, intelligent questions, but what I'd really like to see is an Internet salon of people who have the answers. Can that happen?—Michael Szpir

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