John Brockman


American Literary Agent, Founder of Edge Foundation, an organization aimed to bring together people working at the edge of a broad range of scientific and technical fields

Author Quotes

us measure progress not by what is discovered but rather by the growing list of mysteries that remind us of how little we really know.

When most people think about evolution by selection, they conjure up phrases such as survival of the fittest or nature red in tooth and claw. These focus attention on the Darwinian struggle for survival. Many scientists, but few others, know that evolution by selection occurs through the process of differential reproductive success by virtue of heritable differences in design, not by differential survival success. And differential reproductive success often boils down to differential mating success, the focus of Darwin?s 1871 theory of sexual selection.

We all die. Nearly half of us die of cancer (38 percent of females, 45 percent of males).

When Planck introduced his quantum of action at the turn of the 20th century, he realized that this allowed for a new set of natural units. For example, the Planck time is the square root of Planck?s constant times the gravitational constant divided by the fifth power of the speed of light. It is the smallest unit of time anyone talks about, but is it a time? The problem is that these constants are just that. They are the same to a resting observer as to a moving one. But the time is not. I posed this as a divinette to my coven, and Freeman Dyson came up with a beautiful answer. He tried to construct a clock that would measure it. Using the quantum uncertainties, he showed that it would be consumed by a black hole of its own making. No measurement is possible. The Planck time ain?t a time?or it may be beyond time.

We all have a number of executive sub-selves, and the only way we manage to accomplish anything in life is to allow only one sub-self to take the conscious driver?s seat at any given time.

When we want things to stay the same, we?ll always wind up playing catch-up. Better to go with the flow.

We can speak, think, refer to ourselves as agents, and so build up the false idea of a persisting self that has consciousness and free will.

Why do half of all Americans believe in ghosts, three-quarters believe in angels, a third believe in astrology, three-quarters believe in hell? Why do a quarter of all Americans believe that the president of the United States was born outside the country and is therefore ineligible to be president? Why do more than 40 percent of Americans think the universe began after the domestication of the dog? Let?s not give the defeatist answer and blame it all on stupidity. That?s probably part of the story, but let?s be optimistic and concentrate on something remediable: lack of training in how to think critically and how to discount personal opinion, prejudice, and anecdote in favor of evidence.

The science of morality requires us to, in the end, get beyond the myth of a perfectly objective scientific morality.

We may just have to come around to the notion that there?s my universe and there?s your universe?but there?s no such thing as the universe.

Wicked problems demand people who are creative, pragmatic, flexible, and collaborative. They never invest too much in their ideas, because they know they will have to alter them. They know there?s no right place to start, so they simply start somewhere and see what happens. They accept the fact that they?re more likely to understand the problem after it?s solved than before. They don?t expect to get a good solution; they keep working until they?ve found something that?s good enough. They?re never convinced they know enough to solve the problem, so they?re constantly testing their ideas on different stakeholders.

The story emerging from these studies is not yet complete, but it has already led to fascinating insights. Thanks to its microbes, a baby can better digest its mother?s milk. And your ability to digest carbohydrates relies to a significant extent on enzymes that can be made only by genes present not in you but in your microbiome.

We?d be unfeeling, unconscious zombies if we did.

Worry descends upon the worrier like a fever. Without appropriate treatment, that febrile anxiety burns away at the soul. With such treatment, the fever may break. Only then can the worried become well.

The threat to good collective outcomes doesn?t come only from free riders and predators, as mainstream social sciences teach us, but also from well-organized norms of kakonomics, which regulate exchanges for the worse.

WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic) samples make up most nonclinical neuroimaging studies as well.

Yet cancer rates in New England are higher than in Colorado?an inverse effect.

The universe consists primarily of dark matter. We can?t see it, but it has an enormous gravitational force. The conscious mind?much like the visible aspect of the universe?is only a small fraction of the mental world. The dark matter of the mind, the unconscious, has the greatest psychic gravity. Disregard the dark matter of the universe and anomalies appear. Ignore the dark matter of the mind and our irrationality is inexplicable.

WEIRD people (people in cultures that are Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic)

You may know that a prisoner?s guilt is independent of whether you?re hungry or not, but she?ll still seem like a better parole candidate when you?ve recently had a snack.

There are two kinds of fools: one who says this is old and therefore good, and the other who says this is new and therefore better.

WEIRD people, they argue, are the Weirdest people in the world.

You?re more likely to die while horseback riding (one serious adverse event every 350 or so exposures) than from taking Ecstasy (one serious adverse event every 10,000 or so exposures).

There is a widely held notion that does plenty of damage: the notion of scientifically proved. Nearly an oxymoron. The very foundation of science is to keep the door open to doubt. Precisely because we keep questioning everything, especially our own premises, we are always ready to improve our knowledge. Therefore a good scientist is never certain. Lack of certainty is precisely what makes conclusions more reliable than the conclusions of those who are certain, because the good scientist will be ready to shift to a different point of view if better evidence or novel arguments emerge. Therefore certainty is not only something of no use but is also in fact damaging, if we value reliability.

What is the universe, anyway? To test your knowledge of the universe, please complete the following sentence. The universe (a) consists of all things visible and invisible?what is, has been, and will be. (b) began 13.8 billion years ago in a giant explosion called the Big Bang and encompasses all planets, stars, galaxies, space, and time. (c) was licked out of the salty rim of the primordial fiery pit by the tongue of a giant cow. (d) All of the above. (Correct answer below.)

Author Picture
First Name
Last Name
Birth Date

American Literary Agent, Founder of Edge Foundation, an organization aimed to bring together people working at the edge of a broad range of scientific and technical fields