The Seed dinner in honor of Edward O. Wilson.
My role as editor of this magazine offers me few pleasures greater than sharing a meal with a fascinating scientist. It starts with the ideas on the table, certainly, but for me it’s also the distinct cadence, the fluttering of the hands, the brush of the forehead, the coy grin that lets you know you’re being let in on one of nature’s secrets. Inspired by a friend here in New York who regularly hosts great thinkers in his home, I’ve even installed (with considerable effort) an oversize blackboard in my dining room for those occasions when you just need to see it in chalk.
Over the past few weeks, I’ve landed in a dozen cities in North America and Europe to collect new fodder for my blackboard, and to promote the magazine. I began my trip at the Festival della Scienza in Genoa. Now in its fourth year, the festival brings together great thinkers—Steven Pinker, Robert Trivers, John Brockman, etc.—for several days of talks, plays, panels, and exhibits. Befitting Italy, the science festival shares a main piazza in town with an antiques market (both are unwilling to give up the week), so one truly has to walk through the past to get to the future.
Lisa Randall was there. In the midst of press junketing for the European release of her book, Warped Passages, we had coffee at the Palazzo Ducale, the seat of the first Genoese Doge. We discussed where her fields of particle physics, string theory, and cosmology are heading in 2007, particularly in light of the Large Hadron Collider’s coming online.
Over a memorable plate of tagliatelle near the Porto Antico, Niles Eldredge, paleontologist and curator at the American Museum of Natural History, and I discussed the increasingly topical subject of God versus Science (the focus of our November cover). Eldredge’s acclaimed Darwin exhibit is en route to Boston, then Toronto, and will eventually make its way to London sometime in 2009 to coincide with the bicentenary of Darwin’s birth.
From Genoa, I made my way to Florence to see the Mind of Leonardo exhibit at the Uffizi. I saw an extraordinary collection of notebooks that capture Da Vinci’s insights into the flight of birds, human anatomy, and the geometry of rivers. His unitary conception of knowledge and his blending of the arts and sciences are of particular interest to me. We’ve attempted to follow in his footsteps by inviting emerging artists and scientists to visually communicate some of the most awe-inspiring ideas of 2006.
Heading out west to San Francisco, I spoke with Fabien Cousteau, explorer and grandson of Jacques Cousteau. We discussed public attitudes toward climate change, the future of the oceans, and his upcoming trip to the Amazon.
Back in New York, I spent some time with Gavin Schmidt, NASA climate scientist and blogger, talking about where climatology is heading in the year ahead and what would enable a breakthrough in his field. Pardis Sabeti, MIT geneticist (and lead singer of the rock band Thousand Days) met me for coffee in the West Village to chat about her work with Eric Lander on infectious diseases. And Lever House was the venue for a Seed dinner to honor E.O. Wilson. A few of the Revolutionary Minds profiled in our November issue were there, including Natalie Jeremijenko and Vijay Iyer (whose new album is out this winter), as well as Eric Kandel and Brian Grazer.
I’m writing this letter from my hotel room in Washington, DC, where molecular embryologist and artist Ariel Ruiz i Altaba’s work is now on display at the National Academy of Sciences. Last night over a good Barolo, we considered the effect of the democratization of genetics on the art of portraiture.
Throughout these travels, I’ve been regularly reminded of the pleasure I get from contemplating the worldly and the otherworldly with an inspired scientist over a good bottle of wine, a good bowl of pasta. Not a bad way to spend an evening. I’m even thinking of buying a bigger blackboard.
Originally published January 2, 2007