Edge in the News

John Horgan, BLOGGINGHEADS TV [1.4.08]

John and George’s New Year resolutions; John softens his pessimism about neuroscience ; The soccer club theory of terrorism; The trouble with relying on experts; How George got hooked on garage-band science; Happiness is a burning bridge.

THE GLOBE AND MAIL [1.4.08]

Margaret Wente Comment Column; Second Thoughts

If you want to start your year with a jolt of fresh thinking, I have just the thing. Each year around this time, a Web-based outfit called theEdge Foundation asks a few dozen of the world's brightest scientific brains one big question. This year's question: What have you changed your mind about?

The answers address a fabulous array of issues, including the existence of God, the evolution of mankind, climate change and the nature of the universe. Some of the most provocative responses deal with the bonanza of new evidence from the fast-evolving fields of genetics, neuroscience and evolutionary biology. This is the intellectual equivalent of a New Year's dip in the lake - bracing, possibly shriek-inducing, and bound to wake you up. For the full menu, go to www.edge.org. Meantime, here's a taste. ...

...

THE GLOBE AND MAIL [1.4.08]

Margaret Wente Comment Column; Second Thoughts

If you want to start your year with a jolt of fresh thinking, I have just the thing. Each year around this time, a Web-based outfit called the Edge Foundation asks a few dozen of the world's brightest scientific brains one big question. This year's question: What have you changed your mind about?

The answers address a fabulous array of issues, including the existence of God, the evolution of mankind, climate change and the nature of the universe. Some of the most provocative responses deal with the bonanza of new evidence from the fast-evolving fields of genetics, neuroscience and evolutionary biology. This is the intellectual equivalent of a New Year's dip in the lake - bracing, possibly shriek-inducing, and bound to wake you up. For the full menu, go to www.edge.org. Meantime, here's a taste. ...

BLOGGINGHEADS TV [1.4.08]

 

• Edge.org’s annual question
• George’s answer to the Edge question
• John’s answer to the Edge question

 


John Horgan & George Johnson

John and George’s New Year resolutions; John softens his pessimism about neuroscience ; The soccer club theory of terrorism; The trouble with relying on experts; How George got hooked on garage-band science; Happiness is a burning bridge.

Daniel Gilbert, THE WALL STREET JOURNAL [1.4.08]

CULTURE
Change of Mind Could Spur A Hardening of the Heart
• EDGE -- JAN. 4

When scientists and other prominent intellectuals change their mind about important things, their new outlook often is gloomier.

That, at least, is the theme of responses to a survey conducted by online science-and-culture publication the Edge, which asked some influential thinkers: "What have you changed your mind about? Why?" ... d

...Fittingly, Harvard University psychologist Daniel Gilbert says he has changed his mind about the benefits of changing one's mind. In 2002, a study showed him that people are more satisfied with irrevocable decisions than with ones they can reverse. Acting on the data, he proposed to his now-wife. "It turned out that the data were right: I love my wife more than I loved my girlfriend."

TORONTO STAR [1.4.08]

Ralph Waldo Emerson called consistency the hobgoblin of little minds, yet we live in a world where 'flip-floppers' are treated with contempt. An ambitious new survey of top thinkers, however, serves as a reminder of how healthy it is to change one's mind

Sandro Contenta
Staff Reporter

...Challenging this complacency is a project by the Edge Foundation, a group promoting discussion and inquiry into issues of our time. To kick off the New Year, the group put this statement and question to many of the world's leading scientists and thinkers:

"When thinking changes your mind, that's philosophy. When God changes your mind, that's faith. When facts change your mind, that's science. What have you changed your mind about?"

Answers, posted on the website www.edge.org, came from 164 people, many of them physicists, philosophers, psychologists and anthropologists. They ring like scientific odes to uncertainty, humility and doubt; passionate pleas for critical thought in a world threatened by blind convictions. In short, they're calls for more people who can change their minds. ...

WASHINGTON POST [1.3.08]

John Brockman has been making people notice his ideas for the better part of half a century, going back to the Happenings of the 60s. He's a publicity hound--a literary agent, he once promoted a movie starring The Monkees. More recently, he's created an online salon of ideas, including an annual New Year's question he poses to a long list of the planet's philosophers, thinkers and academics. This year's question:

"What Have You Changed Your Mind About?" Which also becomes the Random Friday Question here on the big blog.

Flexible, optimistic people live longer, the scientists tell us, so--are the world's leading thinkers ready and willing to admit that they've changed their views about big things?

Stewart Brand, founder of The Whole Earth Catalog way back when and the early online community The Well more recently, has decided that his early passion for building preservation was dead wrong. "Good old stuff sucks," he writes. "Sticking with the fine old whatevers is like wearing 100% cotton in the mountains; it's just stupid.
Give me 100% not-cotton clothing, genetically modified food (from a farmers' market, preferably), this-year's laptop, cutting-edge dentistry and drugs."

Brockman surveys a whole lot of scientists and math types whose idea of changing their mind is to adapt to new findings and slightly shift a particular perspective or line of inquiry. This is not in the spirit of the question and I won't bore you with those folks' self-righteous, pedantic responses. There are also quite a few folks who describe their movement from faith to agnosticism or atheism, or vice versa, which is surely change of a sort, but one that probably tells us more about the author's personal, emotional state of mind than about an intellectual journey.

But every once in a while, one of Brockman's correspondents is honest and rigorous enough to admit to a real change:

University of Virginia psychologist Jonathan Haidt says he used to consider sports and fraternities to be the height of American celebration of stupidity. "Primitive tribalism, I thought. Initiation rites, alcohol, sports, sexism, and baseball caps turn decent boys into knuckleheads. I'd have gladly voted to ban fraternities, ROTC, and most sports teams from my university." But Haidt has changed his mind: "I had too individualistic a view of human nature. I began to see us not just as chimpanzees with symbolic lives but also as bees without hives. When we made the transition over the last 200 years from tight communities (Gemeinschaft) to free and mobile societies (Gesellschaft), we escaped from bonds that were sometimes oppressive, yes, but into a world so free that it left many of us gasping for connection, purpose, and meaning. I began to think about the many ways that people, particularly young people, have found to combat this isolation. Rave parties and the Burning Man festival are spectacular examples of new ways to satisfy the ancient longing for communitas. But suddenly sports teams, fraternities, and even the military made a lot more sense."

A friend of Carl Sagan's writes about his own flip from the search for intelligent life elsewhere in the universe to his conviction that We Are Alone. Internet advocate Douglas Rushkoff says he has given up on his notion that the Web would change the world and alter human consciousness and has now reluctantly concluded that "cyberspace has become just another place to do business. The question is no longer how browsing the Internet changes the way we look at the world; it's which browser we'll be using to buy and sell stuff in the same old world." And TV writer Karl Sabbagh concludes that no, experts really are no wiser than the rest of us: "The people I know who are wise are not necessarily knowledgeable; the people I know who are knowledgeable are not necessarily wise. Most of us confuse expertise with judgment."

In some cases, the change of mind is a reinterpretation of events. The physicist Freeman Dyson took a new look at the end of World War II and decided that history was wrong: The dropping of the atomic bombs did not end the war. He lays out a pretty compelling case based on new historical studies and concludes that demolishing that myth might make the road to eliminating nuclear weapons a bit smoother. Not likely, but still, a splendid thought exercise.

All this change can make for bewildering and disturbing reading: A mathematician concludes that robots can see God. A philosopher loses trust, faith and belief in modern medicine. An evolutionary biologist reluctantly comes to see that there really are more differences among races than we would like to think.

I've changed my mind about many things in recent years. Here are just two of them: I used to think that slower was better than faster. I now believe the opposite. And this: For many years, I favored fat over salt. I have now switched sides.

What have you changed your mind about?

(And while you're thinking creatively, please remember to jump in on our D.C. quarter contest: You propose the image that ought to be on the new coin that will belatedly add the District to the U.S. Mint's 50-states quarters program. Our crack staff of judges will choose the most creative and persuasive proposal. The winner's image will be given to an artist who will produce a reasonably professional rendering of your idea for the folks over at the Mint--and you will win a very nice version of that artistic rendition.

(Here's how to play: Send your entries, in word description or, if you're really ambitious, in image, to tellus@washingtonpost.com We'll collect your entries through January 6th and report back to you soon thereafter.)

WASHINGTON POST [1.3.08]

RFQ: What Have You Changed Your Mind About? (Plus: Last Chance on the Coin Contest)

...University of Virginia psychologist Jonathan Haidt says he used to consider sports and fraternities to be the height of American celebration of stupidity. "Primitive tribalism, I thought. Initiation rites, alcohol, sports, sexism, and baseball caps turn decent boys into knuckleheads. I'd have gladly voted to ban fraternities, ROTC, and most sports teams from my university." But Haidt has changed his mind: "I had too individualistic a view of human nature. I began to see us not just as chimpanzees with symbolic lives but also as bees without hives. When we made the transition over the last 200 years from tight communities (Gemeinschaft) to free and mobile societies (Gesellschaft), we escaped from bonds that were sometimes oppressive, yes, but into a world so free that it left many of us gasping for connection, purpose, and meaning. I began to think about the many ways that people, particularly young people, have found to combat this isolation. Rave parties and the Burning Man festival are spectacular examples of new ways to satisfy the ancient longing for communitas. But suddenly sports teams, fraternities, and even the military made a lot more sense." ...

NATIONAL REVIEW ONLINE [1.2.08]

Pop-math author par excellence Keith Devlin drops Platonism.

In doing so, Keith edges a bit closer than I’d like to the social-contruction arguments of Reuben Hersh. I seriously doubt that “other cognitive creatures in another part of the universe might have different mathematics.” I don’t think, when we eventually get to the Lesser Magellanic Cloud, we shall find that two plus two equals five over there, or that the angles of plane triangles add up to 190 degrees. In any case, according to Martin Seligman (see below) there’ll be no-one there to discuss the matter with.

Still, the anti-Platonism is surely correct. The beginning of mathematics is abstraction — forming those stable mental structures we call “concepts” from repeated observations of the world around us. Abstraction, and math, then advance by forming hierarchies of concepts, the concepts at each level dealing with the concepts at the lower as if they were objects in the physical world. That is, as Keith points out, the only way we are equipped to treat them. The fact that we can only think about concepts as if they were objects, does not mean they are objects, though. Score one for Nietzsche. Still, anyone who seizes on this as an excuse to teach “feminist math” or “African math” should be tarred, feathered, and run out of town on a rail.

Devlin’s piece is one of many brief contributions to science webzine Edge.org‘s Annual Question round robin: “What Have You Changed Your Mind About? Why?” addressed to notable intellectuals, with a bias towards the human sciences. For an exceptionally high quotient of interesting ideas to words, this is hard to beat. Try, according to your own interests:

What a feast of egg-head opinionating!

If there’s a common tendency running through many of these pieces, it is the fast-rising waters of naturalism, released by a half-century of discoveries in genetics, evolutionary biology, and neuroscience, submerging every other way of looking at the human world.

We are part of nature, a twig on the tree of life. If we are to have any understanding of ourselves, we must start from that. Final answers to ancient questions are beginning to come in. You may not be happy about the answers; but not being happy about them will be like not being happy aboutHeisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle. Sing it, Bobby:

Come gather ‘round people
Wherever you roam
And admit that the waters
Around you have grown
And accept it that soon
You’ll be drenched to the bone.
If your time to you
Is worth savin’
Then you better start swimmin’
Or you’ll sink like a stone
For the minds they are a-changin’.

NATIONAL REVIEW ONLINE [1.2.08]

Plato Had a Bad Year [John Derbyshire]

For an exceptionally high quotient of interesting ideas to words, this is hard to beat. ... What a feast of egg-head opinionating!

If there's a common tendency running through many of these pieces, it is the fast-rising waters of naturalism, released by a half-century of discoveries in genetics, evolutionary biology, and neuroscience, submerging every other way of looking at the human world.

We are part of nature, a twig on the tree of life. If we are to have any understanding of ourselves, we must start from that. Final answers to ancient questions are beginning to come in. You may not be happy about the answers; but not being happy about them will be like not being happy about Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle.

Correre Della Sera — Italy [1.1.08]

From theories of evolution to differences among races, some scholars' mea culpa are online

LONDON — "When thinking changes your mind, that's philosophy, when God changes your mind, that's faith, when facts change your mind, that's science". This is the introduction to the year’s question as posed by a cultural association to which belong the principal thinkers of this moment, from Richard Dawkins, British evolutionary biologist and author of cult book The Selfish Gene, to psychologist Steven Pinker, passing through music producer Brian Eno.

Hundreds responded to the challenge (perhaps in part because the answers to preceding questions were published as books) and revealed widespread reversals of opinions—sometimes dramatic, sometimes gracious.

...

EL MUNDO — Spain [1.1.08]

At the beginning of each year is a great event in the Anglo-Saxon culture, or rather, in the social life of that culture...The event is called the Edge Annual Question, bringing together much of the most interesting 

Anthropologist Richard Wrangham has introduced a subtle shift in the explanation of the evolutionary history of man: he once believed it to be caused by eating meat, now he believes that the decisive factor is the kitchen, ie, changing from raw to cooked. The response from the musician Brian Eno explains how he went from revolution to evolution, and how he left Maoism for Darwin. ...

DIE ZEIT [1.1.08]

Even the best minds of this world sometimes have to accept that they were wrong. Scientists answer the question of the Edge Foundation, which they have changed their minds - and why.

? What would you have changed your mind and why "that question the Edge Foundation's leading scholars and thinkers have asked - and got surprising answers. The organization is an informal group of intellectuals who want to work together to find answers to questions that move the company. For each year presents its coordinator, the publisher John Brockman, the members remains a tricky task. "What is your dangerous idea?", "What do you think is true, although you can not prove?" Were issues of recent years. The answers are on the website www.edge.org read. 

The question this year was: 
When thinking changes your opinion, that's philosophy. 
When God changes your opinion, that's faith. 
When facts change your opinion, that's science. 
What would you have changed your opinion and why? 

More than 120 scientists have racked their brains over this small issue and found that they had at least something from which they were firmly convinced revise. Perhaps it is because they are scientists. For a scientist, at least once in his career does not think his change in, be narrow-minded, stuck, rigid and dogmatic, writes Richard Dawkins , evolutionary biologist and author of the bestseller The God Delusion. In this, the members of this profession would be fundamentally different from politicians who are afraid of being accused of being a little flag in the wind, if they change their mind. 

The responses of the intellectuals are personal, sometimes quite technical, but also political. They cover a wide range of what concerns people: climate change, the difference between men and women, but also the question of the existence of God. 

Craig Venter: Saving the Earth 
The gene pioneer Craig Venter believed for years that only future generations must also consider how they solve the problem of dwindling natural energy resources. He believed that ultimately only the diminishing oil reserves go - and not the CO2 emissions. This idea he had to revise the increase in carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere is irrefutable, wrote the researchers. His answer is also an appeal: "Our planet is in crisis and we must mobilize all our intellectual powers to save him." 

Helena Cronin: Stupid men, wise men 
Helena Cronin, a Evolutionstheoretikerin at the London School of Economics addressed the question of why men seem more successful at work and the thesis that the different talents of both sexes are innate. Men are more aggressive, risk-taking and ambitious. With these capabilities, they are superior to women who are more socially competent and more talk. This opinion has it fundamentally changed talents, tastes and temperament were not sufficient to explain why men are more successful than women, notes the scientist. Their new argument: Take one to a normal distribution, be it simple so that the women are rather average, while men occupy the extremes. "More dumbbels but more Nobels", that is either extremely stupid or extremely smart is the male sex, it sums up their knowledge. 

Leon Lederman: Scientists in politics! 
The physics Nobel laureate Leon Lederman Max is worried about what the responsibilities of a researcher. He concludes: Do not just research and teaching should address a scientist, but also in politics, he wants the thinking elite, "A Congress that is dominated by lawyers and economists, makes no sense in the 21st Century in which it is almost always for scientific and technological issues. " 

Patrick Bateson: Well but godless 
Sometimes a single call to change a fundamental review. It happened to the behavioral scientist Patrick Bateson of the University of Cambridge. He has always said he was an agnostic, someone who could affirm the existence of God nor deny. The term "atheism" was it always been too aggressive. Until he was placed at dinner next to a staunch supporter of creationism. The table conversation with his neighbor has left the scientist tracks. The narrowness of his interlocutor has taken him to call himself an atheist today.

DIE ZEIT [1.1.08]

Even the best minds of this world sometimes have to accept that they were wrong. Scientists to answer the question of Edge Foundation, which they change their mind — and why.

The responses of the intellectuals are personal, sometimes very technical, but also political. They cover a wide range of what people employed: Climate change, the difference between men and women, but also the question of the existence of God.

ZOOM: Edge Question
EL MUNDO — Spain [1.1.08]

At the beginning of each year is a great event in the Anglo-Saxon culture, or rather, in the social life of that culture...The event is called the Edge Annual Question, bringing together much of the most interesting 

Anthropologist Richard Wrangham has introduced a subtle shift in the explanation of the evolutionary history of man: he once believed it to be caused by eating meat, now he believes that the decisive factor is the kitchen, ie, changing from raw to cooked. The response from the musician Brian Eno explains how he went from revolution to evolution, and how he left Maoism for Darwin. ...

Read the full article →

Correre Della Sera — Italy [1.1.08]

UN'ASSOCIAZIONE CULTURALE HA CHIESTO A LUMINARI E 

FILOSOFI DI RACCONTARE I PROPRI ERRORI

Quando lo scienza confessa: ho sbagliato
Dalle teorie sull'evoluzione alle differenze tra razze, 
in rete i mea culpa degli studiosi

LONDRA — «Quando pensare modifica la tua opinione è filosofia, quando Dio ti fa cambiare idea è fede. Quando i fatti ti fanno vedere le cose in modo diverso è scienza». Questa l'introduzione al quesito per l'anno posto da un'associazione culturale cui aderiscono i principali pensatori del momento, da Richard Dawkins, lo zoologo britannico autore del libro culto Il gene egoista e più recentemente L'illusione di Dio, allo psicologo Steven Pinker passando per il musicista produttoreBrian Eno.

Se nel 2006 aveva domandato ai suoi iscritti quale fosse l'idea più pericolosa e nel 2007 su che cosa si sentissero ottimisti, per il 2008Edge (il sito è www.edge.org) ha lanciato una provocazione: su cosa avete cambiato idea? E perché? L'obiettivo era spingere gli scienziati, gli scrittori e i ricercatori che utilizzano regolarmente il sito ad ammettere, in un certo senso, i propri errori.

Centinaia di loro hanno raccolto l'invito (a tanta solerzia ha forse contribuito il fatto che le ultime edizioni delle risposte sono state pubblicate sotto forma di libro), rivelando una gamma di dietro front tra il clamoroso e il simpatico.

Slashdot [12.31.07]

chrisd writes

"The Edge 2008 question (with answers) is in. This year, the question is: 'What did you change your mind about and why?'. Answers are featured from scientists as diverse as Richard DawkinsSimon Baron-CohenGeorge Church,David BrinJ. Craig Venter and the Astronomer Royal, Lord Martin Rees, among others. Very interesting to read. For instance, Stewart Brand writes that he now realizes that 'Good old stuff sucks' and Sam Harris has decided that 'Mother Nature is Not Our Friend.' What did Slashdot readers change their minds about in 2007?"

O'REILLY RADAR [12.31.07]

Every year, John Brockman of the Edge Foundation asks a group of scientists and other thinkers a big question, and publishes their answers. This year, the question was framed as follows:

When thinking changes your mind, that's philosophy. 
When God changes your mind, that's faith. 
When facts change your mind, that's science.

WHAT HAVE YOU CHANGED YOUR MIND ABOUT? WHY?

Science is based on evidence. What happens when the data change? How have scientific findings or arguments changed your mind?"

John asked me to contribute. At first I demurred, both because I didn't have anything to say to match what I expected from the august company of scientists he'd assembled to answer his question and because I'm more in the "when thinking changes your mind" camp. Working as I do to shape how people think about social and technology trends, I'm less involved with facts that can be right or wrong than how what we believe changes what we see and do. Besides, my thinking tends to evolve rather than reverse itself. As I retell my story, I'm continually updating and revising.

John persisted. I eventually offered some ideas and he jumped on one: my skepticism about the term "social software" after Clay Shirky's "Social Software Summit" in November 2002. As it turns out, Clay was right and I was wrong. This was a powerful meme indeed, just five years early.

Here's what I wrote for the 2008 Edge question. As I suspected, it's a meager offering at a remarkable feast of the intellect. Use it, if you must, as an entry point to an amazing group of reflections on science, culture, and the evolution of ideas. Reading the Edge question is like being invited to dinner with some of the most interesting people on the planet. . 

GUARDIAN UNLIMITED [12.31.07]

What did you change your mind about in 2007? The world's intellectual elite spread some New Year humility.

James Randerson, science correspondent

Since I wrote my piece on this year's show of scientific humility for the New Year's day paper some big names have added their thoughts to the mix.

Here's evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins on how being a "flip-flopper" is no bad thing in science...

The controversial geneticist Craig Venter has had a change of heart about the capacity of our planet to soak up the punishment humanity is throwing at it...

There are also interesting contributions from Simon Baron-Cohen, the University of Cambridge autism researcher who has changed his mind about equality; psychologist Susan Blackmore, who has gone from embracing the paranormal to debunking it; and artist and composerBrian Eno, who was once seduced by Maoism, but now believes it is a "monstrosity".

What did you change your mind about in 2007?

THE GUARDIAN [12.31.07]

The changes of mind that gave philosophers and scientists new insights

They are the intellectual elite, the brains the rest of us rely on to make sense of the universe and answer the big questions. But in a refreshing show of new year humility, the world's best thinkers have admitted that from time to time even they are forced to change their minds.

When tackling subjects as diverse as human evolution, the laws of physics and sexual politics, scientists and philosophers, including Steven Pinker, Daniel Dennett, Paul Davies and Richard Wrangham, all confessed yesterday to a change of heart.

The display of scientific modesty was brought about by the annual new year's question posed by the website edge.org, which drew responses from more than 120 of the world's greatest thinkers.

Edge's publisher, John Brockman, asked the intellectual cream what they had changed their mind about and why. "Science is based on evidence. What happens when the data change? How have scientific findings or arguments changed your mind?" said the brief.

A common theme in the responses is that what distinguishes science from other forms of knowledge and from faith is that new ideas can rapidly overturn old ones as new evidence emerges. So there's nothing to be ashamed about in admitting an intellectual switch. Some responses, such as Dennett's change of heart on how the mind works, resist paraphrasing in 100 words, but here is a selection of the rest.

What was the turning point in human evolution?

Richard Wrangham, British anthropologist who studied under Jane Goodall. Now at Harvard University, his research includes primate behaviour and human evolution.

"I used to think that human origins were explained by meat-eating. After all, the idea that meat-eating launched humanity has been the textbook evolutionary story for decades, mooted even before Darwin was born.

"But in a rethinking of conventional wisdom I now think that cooking was the major advance that turned ape into human ... Cooked food is the signature feature of human diet. It not only makes our food safe and easy to eat, but it also grants us large amounts of energy compared to a raw diet, obviating the need to ingest big meals. Cooking softens food too, thereby making eating so speedy that as eaters of cooked food, we are granted many extra hours of free time every day."

Why do men dominate society?

Helena Cronin, philosopher at the London School of Economics and director of Darwin@LSE, a research group devoted to what Darwinism can tell us about human nature.

"I used to think that patterns of sex differences resulted mainly from average differences between men and women in innate talents, tastes and temperaments ... Add to this some bias and barriers - a sexist attitude here, a lack of childcare there - and the sex differences are explained. Or so I thought ... But they alone don't fully explain the differences ... Females are much of a muchness, clustering round the mean. But, among males, the variance - the difference between the most and the least, the best and the worst - can be vast.

"So males are almost bound to be over-represented both at the bottom and at the top. I think of this as 'more dumbbells but more Nobels'... Unfortunately, however, this is not the prevailing perspective in current debates, particularly where policy is concerned."

Are there genetic differences between "races"?

Mark Pagel, evolutionary biologist at Reading University. His research includes work on language and cultural evolution.

"Flawed as the old ideas about race are, modern genomic studies reveal a surprising, compelling and different picture of human genetic diversity. We are on average about 99.5% similar to each other genetically. This is a new figure, down from the previous estimate of 99.9%. To put what may seem like minuscule differences in perspective, we are somewhere around 98.5% similar, maybe more, to chimpanzees, our nearest evolutionary relatives.

"The new figure for us, then, is significant. It derives from among other things, many small genetic differences that have emerged from studies that compare human populations ... Like it or not, there may be many genetic differences among human populations - including differences that may even correspond to old categories of "race" - that are real differences in the sense of making one group better than another at responding to some particular environmental problem.

"This in no way says one group is in general "superior" to another ... But it warns us that we must be prepared to discuss genetic differences among human populations.

Are humans still evolving?

Steven Pinker, leading psychologist and language expert at Harvard University. Author of The Language Instinct and The Blank Slate.

"I've had to question the overall assumption that human evolution pretty much stopped by the time of the agricultural revolution ... New [laboratory] results have suggested that thousands of genes, perhaps as much as 10% of the human genome, have been under strong recent selection, and the selection may even have accelerated during the past several thousand years ... If these results hold up, and apply to psychologically relevant brain function ... then the field of evolutionary psychology might have to reconsider the simplifying assumption that biological evolution was pretty much over and done with 10-000-50,000 years ago."

Is the universe flat?

Laurence Krauss, physicist at Case Western Reserve University and prominent opponent of the Intelligent Design movement. His books include The Physics of Star Trek.

"I was relatively certain that there was precisely enough matter in the universe to make it geometrically flat ... according to general relativity [geometrically flat] means there is a precise balance between the positive kinetic energy associated with the expansion of space, and the negative potential energy associated with the gravitational attraction of matter in the universe so that the total energy is precisely zero ... We are now pretty sure that the dominant energy-stuff in our universe isn't normal matter, and isn't dark matter, but rather is associated with empty space! And what is worse (or better, depending upon your viewpoint) is that our whole picture of the possible future of the universe has changed. An accelerating universe will carry away almost everything we now see, so that in the far future our galaxy will exist alone in a dark, and seemingly endless void. And that is what I find so satisfying about science ... that the whole community could throw out a cherished notion, and so quickly! That is what makes science different than religion."

Should we use brain-boosting drugs?

Philip Campbell, editor-in-chief of the leading scientific journal Nature

"I've changed my mind about the use of enhancement drugs by healthy people. A year ago, if asked, I'd have been against the idea, whereas now I think there's much to be said for it. The ultimate test of such a change of mind is how I'd feel if my offspring (both adults) went down that road, and my answer is that with tolerable risks of side effects and zero risk of addiction, then I'd feel OK if there was an appropriate purpose to it ... Research and societal discussions are necessary before cognitive enhancement drugs should be made legally available for the healthy, but I now believe that that is the right direction in which to head.

Does God exist?

Alan Alda, perhaps best-known as Hawkeye in the 70s series MASH. He now hosts Scientific American Frontiers on US television.

"Until I was 20 I was sure there was a being who could see everything I did and who didn't like most of it. He seemed to care about minute aspects of my life, like on what day of the week I ate a piece of meat. And yet, he let earthquakes and mudslides take out whole communities, apparently ignoring the saints among them who ate their meat on the assigned days. Eventually, I realised that I didn't believe there was such a being ... I still don't like the word agnostic. It's too fancy. I'm simply not a believer."

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