Eran Tromer's Book Reviews 
John Brockman (Ed.)

The Third Culture

Simon & Schuster, 1981

"The third culture consists of scientists and other thinkers who are taking the place of the "traditional intellectuals" in rendering visible the deeper meanings of our lives, redefining who and what we are."
The quotation above forms the opening paragraph of The Third Culture by John Brockman. It is the basis of his observation of the emergence of an important trend in intellectual activity, where scientists are increasingly taking the role of defining and communicating views of profound, universal issues: the nature of the universe, life, intelligence and order.

Brockman presents his notion of a third culture as an extension of C. P. Snow's The Two Cultures (1959), where it is observed that there exists a distinction between literary intellectuals and scientists, with the latter losing their direct link with society and the former self-assuming the role of the only intellectuals. The new third culture is a trend where scientists address the public directly, through popularized presentation that can be comprehended by laymen. This, coupled with the deep issues addressed by modern science and with the profound philosophical implications of recent theories, has an important impact on the general public's understanding of the world, and on the social forces that shape this understanding.

This, at least, is the subject of this book as presented by the introduction, the publisher, the dust jacket and the review quotations. Unfortunately, this is window dressing, and shoddy window dressing at that.

Once one finishes the introduction (4 pages by John Brockman, 10 pages of commentary by "samples" of the third culture), one is left with a book that has very little to do with in-depth discussion of scientists' role in society or related issues. It is actually quite tempting to be feel cheated, unless one goes on reading.

The Third Culture is actually a collection of short presentations, by prominent scientists, of their achievements, interests, ideas and views. It is divided into 5 parts:

  1. The Evolutionary Idea

  2. Biology ... Evolution ... Darwin ... Genes ... Memes ... Organisms ...
  3. A Collection of Kludges

  4. Brain ... Mind ... Information ... Consciousness ... Language ... Self ...
  5. Questions of Origin

  6. Physics ... Cosmology ... Universe ... Quantum Mechanics ... Relativity ...
  7. What Was Darwin's Algorithm?

  8. Complexity ... Plectics ... Chaos ... Emergent Order ... Adaptive Systems ... Organization ...
  9. Something That Goes Beyond Ourselves
Each part starts with an foreword by Brockman, which introduces the subject discussed and the scientists presented in the chapters of the part. Following that are chapters, each dedicated to a certain scientist, that consists of the following parts: The real meat in the book lies in the self-presentations. The rest often seems to serve little other than space-filling purposes. These presentations are recorded interviews, narrated and edited. They do not include Brockman's part of the interview. The content of these interviews varies, but in general, each scientist attempts to describe, in a brief and non-formal form, the crux of his creation. This may consist of great past achievements, current pursues, deep intuitions, guiding approach, view of the scientific field, or (as is often the case among the evolutionary biologists) criticism of other scientists.

Admittably, some of these presentations are not very awe-inspiring; indeed, I personally found some downright embarrassing. But some definitely are. Brockman has brought forth some of the best scientific minds, and these cannot be regarded lightly: they really do have a message to get across, and that message is often deep, striking and fertile.

Furthermore, even the less inspiring presentations have their merit. For instance, much of Part 1 consists of top evolutionary biologists doing what seems to me like having petty fights -- this, too, is a useful lesson.

The presentations are not scientifically deep, as can be expected. They are very informal, and some deal with the people more than they address the science. In has some positive sides, however: it's not very often that we encounter these aspects of science, and besides, at times it contributes to lively and engaging prose.

Overall, I often found this book very thought provoking and tantalizing: it has some of the great scientific minds presenting condensed versions their views of Life, the Universe and Everything. But I was also somewhat offended by the structure of the book and what it claims to be, which I find quite questionable -- I do wish Brockman was more honest about the nature of his book. It's primary value is as an engaging introduction to some of the fascinating modern scientific fields, and the authors that make them available to the layman. In a sense, it is a chance to sample these authors, the bringer of the "third culture" -- an introductory presentations to the masters of introductory presentations.

© 1997 Eran Tromer.    Feedback to