NET GAINS: The edge of enlightenment

Can you imagine what the Internet must have been like in its early days? Of course, there must have been plenty of technical foul-ups, lost messages and insanely complicated protocols (not to mention the terrible Seventies haircuts). But let's leave all that aside. Just picture it: a group of academics debating the big ideas in glorious intellectual isolation. Nothing to distract them from tackling the really important questions.

Not like that these days, is it? Or so I thought. But there are still places on the Internet where that sense of raw intellectual excitement about the meaning of life still lingers. One, for example, is the aptly named Edge. Its mission is to allow scientists to discuss the really big questions. It doesn't, I hasten to add, have anything to do with the wearily spiralling numbers of nutty religious/ metaphysical websites that would take you a couple of lifetimes to work your way through. This is about hard science.

The site, as it says in its own words, aims to "seek out the most complex and sophisticated minds and put them in a room together" so that people can air the questions that keep them awake at night. For example, Richard Dawkins (above), the evolutionary biologist, asks: "What might a second specimen of the phenomenon that we call life look like?"; the astronomer John Barrow wonders: "Is the Universe a great mechanism, a great computation, a great symmetry, a great accident, or a great thought?" It's all very poignant when you remember that this was exactly what the Internet sprang into existence to allow. It's a stimulating place to spend some time.

I have to confess, without wanting to sound too negative, that I'm a little uncomfortable with the philosophy behind this kind of hyper-elite debate. In the same way that popular-science issues on Start the Week are the crack cocaine of the intelligentsia - apparent enlightenment with no effort, all tied up in a box with a red ribbon - it's easy to fall under the illusion that you're being clever and well-informed. As my physics professor at college never tired of telling me, you won't get anywhere intellectually without working up a bit of a sweat. Sadly, he chose to illustrate this by making me sit in a room for three months with a book on the mathematics of quantum physics. I wasn't, I confess, much wiser about the mysteries of the atom by the end. However, I've never mistaken the popular science books that promise to explain the meaning of life for anything other than brain candy.

That experience also cured me of the intellectual pretensions which most of us harbour as students: that grim belief, in the face of all the evidence, that you're going to be the next Jean-Paul Sartre. The Edge, though, avoids this college-style intellectual masturbation. And, of course, you never know: you might just be one of the first people to read the scribblings of the world's next legendary thinkers. If there are any other sites with the same kind of vision, I'd love to hear about them.

www.edge.org

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