The ideas man

I’ve long been an addict of, the website/salon founded by John Brockman. I finally got to interview him for the Observer.

To say that John Brockman is a literary agent is like saying that David Hockney is a photographer. For while it’s true that Hockney has indeed made astonishingly creative use of photography, and Brockman is indeed a successful literary agent who represents an enviable stable of high-profile scientists and communicators, in both cases the description rather understates the reality. More accurate ways of describing Brockman would be to say that he is a “cultural impresario” or, as his friend Stewart Brand puts it, an “intellectual enzyme”. Brand goes on helpfully to explain that an enzyme is “a biological catalyst – an adroit enabler of otherwise impossible things”.

The first thing you notice about Brockman, though, is the interesting way he bridges CP Snow’s “Two Cultures” – the parallel universes of the arts and the sciences. When profilers ask him for pictures, one he often sends shows him with Andy Warhol and Bob Dylan, no less. Or shots of the billboard photographs of his head that were used to publicise an eminently forgettable 1968 movie. But he’s also one of the few people around who can phone Nobel laureates in science with a good chance that they will take the call.