Although the group's members wield a great deal of practical influence over the affairs of society and state, the organization, as a body, has none itself. Whereas the National Academy of Sciences serves as a national scientific advisory board, the philosophical society's mission is to "assemble the top people in a wide variety of disciplines in sciences, humanities and arts and set the standards of excellence in those areas," says 80-year-old executive officer Herman Goldstine, a retired Princeton University mathematician and holder of the National Medal of Science as one of the inventors of the electronic computer.

"This is one of the few places in the world where scientists and humanists meet on equal grounds and discover that scholarship is scholarship, whether in nuclear physics or history," said former philosophical society president Eliot Stellar in an interview just before his death last month at age 73. Stellar said he especially...

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