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

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: Sales Manager

    £35000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a unique opportunity to...

    Recruitment Genius: Trainee Manager - Production

    Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: Trainee Managers are required to join the UK's...

    Recruitment Genius: Telesales Manager

    £25000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: You will maximise the effective...

    SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

    £20000 - £25000 per annum + uncapped commission : SThree: Hello! I know most ...

    Day In a Page

    The saffron censorship that governs India: Why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression

    The saffron censorship that governs India

    Zareer Masani reveals why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression
    Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

    Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

    Supreme Court rules Dominic Grieve's ministerial veto was invalid
    Distressed Zayn Malik fans are cutting themselves - how did fandom get so dark?

    How did fandom get so dark?

    Grief over Zayn Malik's exit from One Direction seemed amusing until stories of mass 'cutting' emerged. Experts tell Gillian Orr the distress is real, and the girls need support
    The galaxy collisions that shed light on unseen parallel Universe

    The cosmic collisions that have shed light on unseen parallel Universe

    Dark matter study gives scientists insight into mystery of space
    The Swedes are adding a gender-neutral pronoun to their dictionary

    Swedes introduce gender-neutral pronoun

    Why, asks Simon Usborne, must English still struggle awkwardly with the likes of 's/he' and 'they'?
    Disney's mega money-making formula: 'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan

    Disney's mega money-making formula

    'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan
    Lobster has gone mainstream with supermarket bargains for £10 or less - but is it any good?

    Lobster has gone mainstream

    Anthea Gerrie, raised on meaty specimens from the waters around Maine, reveals how to cook up an affordable feast
    Easter 2015: 14 best decorations

    14 best Easter decorations

    Get into the Easter spirit with our pick of accessories, ornaments and tableware
    Paul Scholes column: Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season

    Paul Scholes column

    Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season
    Inside the Kansas greenhouses where Monsanto is 'playing God' with the future of the planet

    The future of GM

    The greenhouses where Monsanto 'plays God' with the future of the planet
    Britain's mild winters could be numbered: why global warming is leaving UK chillier

    Britain's mild winters could be numbered

    Gulf Stream is slowing down faster than ever, scientists say
    Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

    Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

    Donation brings total raised by Homeless Veterans campaign to at least £1.25m
    Oh dear, the most borrowed book at Bank of England library doesn't inspire confidence

    The most borrowed book at Bank of England library? Oh dear

    The book's fifth edition is used for Edexcel exams
    Cowslips vs honeysuckle: The hunt for the UK’s favourite wildflower

    Cowslips vs honeysuckle

    It's the hunt for UK’s favourite wildflower
    Child abuse scandal: Did a botched blackmail attempt by South African intelligence help Cyril Smith escape justice?

    Did a botched blackmail attempt help Cyril Smith escape justice?

    A fresh twist reveals the Liberal MP was targeted by the notorious South African intelligence agency Boss