Multimedia Project Invites Discourse on Human Existence

By John Roach
for National Geographic News
May 23, 2001

Will the Internet change humanity? Why do we make music and art? Does sex have a future? What will tomorrow really be like? Questions such as these lack simple answers, but open discussion of them is vital to understanding the nature of human existence.

At least that's the theory of Robert Kuhn, an investment banker with a Ph.D. in brain science from the University of California in Los Angeles and a passion to use communications technology for intellectual discourse, not to sell advertising.

Kuhn's passion led him to form a partnership with KOCE, a public television station that serves southern California, to create Closer to Truth—a multimedia enterprise in which artists, scientists, philosophers, and members of the general public discuss the fundamental scientific and ethical questions of modern times.

"We are looking at becoming the program of record for new knowledge," said Kuhn, "where new knowledge is presented and long-term implications discussed."

The project centers on 28 television shows that were taped in 1999. For each show, a panel of four or five experts on a given subject—most of them well known in their fields—sit around a table and discuss one of the fundamental questions facing society.

In one show, Leon Lederman, director emeritus of the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia, Illinois, and winner of the Nobel Prize for physics in 1988, joins a panel of men discussing why quantum physics is so beautiful.

Viewers can provide feedback after the shows through a related interactive Web site. One viewer of the show on physics, who described herself in an e-mail message as a "young woman interested in absolute knowledge," wrote to say she was "transfixed" by the discourse.

"The way they spoke of quantum mechanics, it was as if they were talking about a woman they had all shared a tremendous affair with," she wrote. "The way they waited as each man spoke of it, as if to compare the experience. That's why I watched so transfixed, wishing I were this thing they described."

Tool for Serious Discourse

The shows, distributed by American Public Television of Boston, are fully funded by a foundation established by Kuhn, K2 Media Productions, at a cost of about U.S. $200,000. They began airing, in no particular order, on public television stations across the United States, and can also be viewed on the show's Web site through a format known as streaming video Closer to Truth.

Bruce Murray, a planetary scientist and geologist at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, who has been a panelist in several of the shows, said a major strength of Closer to Truth is its integration with the Internet.

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