Edge in the News

THE INDEPENDENT [1.20.07]

Richard Dawkins

Evolutionary biologist; Charles Simonyi Professor for the Understanding of Science, Oxford University; author, 'The God Delusion'

The final scientific enlightenment

I am optimistic that the physicists of our species will complete Einstein's dream and discover the final theory of everything before superior creatures, evolved on another world, make contact and tell us the answer. I am optimistic that, although the theory of everything will bring fundamental physics to a convincing closure, the enterprise of physics itself will continue to flourish, just as biology went on growing after Darwin solved its deep problem. I am optimistic that the two theories together will furnish a totally satisfying naturalistic explanation for the existence of the universe and everything that's in it, including ourselves. And I am optimistic that this final scientific enlightenment will deal an overdue death blow to religion and other juvenile superstitions.

Rodney A Brooks

Director, MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL); chief technical officer of iRobot Corporation; author, 'Flesh and Machines'

The 22nd century

I am optimistic about many things, especially the future. Just last week I met a number of people from the 22nd century, and they were delightful. We smiled and giggled together a lot but none of them seemed to speak a word of English. Even their Japanese was not so great just yet. But demographic analysis tell us that many of those little girls I saw in Kyoto will end up as citizens of the next century.

I am optimistic that even if none of the people I just met do so, then at least someone who is already alive will be the first person to make their permanent home off Earth. And next century my new young acquaintances will go to sleep at night on this planet knowing that humankind has spread itself out into the solar system. Some people will have done it for wealth. Others, driven by our evolutionarily selected urges, will have done it to once again mediate risks across our gene pool by spreading out into different environmental niches. But the wonder of it all is that those now old, but sprightly, women in Kyoto will be able to revel in the romance of the human spirit, always questing to learn, understand, explore, and be.

Brian Eno

Artist; composer; producer (U2, Talking Heads, Paul Simon); recording artist

Big government

Things change for the better either because something went wrong or because something went right. Recently, we've seen an example of the former, and this failure fills me with optimism.

The acceptance of the reality of global warming has, in the words of Sir Nicholas Stern in his report on climate change to the British government, shown us "the greatest and widest ranging market failure ever seen". The currency of conservatism for the past century has been that markets are smarter than governments: and this creed has reinforced the conservative resistance to anything resembling binding international agreements. The suggestion that global warming represents a failure of the market is therefore important. Technical solutions will hopefully be found, but the process will need to be primed and stoked and enforced by legislation that would be regarded as big-government socialism in the present climate. The future may be a bit more like Sweden and a bit less like America.

If a single first instance of global governance proves successful, it will strengthen its appeal as a way of addressing other problems - such as weapons control, energy management, money-laundering, conflict resolution, people-trafficking, slavery and poverty. It will become increasingly difficult for countries to stay outside of future treaties such as Kyoto - partly because of international pressure but increasingly because of pressure from their own populations.

Steven Pinker

Psychologist, Harvard University; author, 'The Blank Slate'

The decline of violence

In 16th-century Paris, a popular form of entertainment was cat-burning, in which a cat was hoisted on a stage and slowly lowered into a fire. According to the historian Norman Davies, "the spectators, including kings and queens, shrieked with laughter as the animals, howling with pain, were singed, roasted, and finally carbonised". As horrific as present-day events are, such sadism would be unthinkable today in most of the world. This is just one example of the most important and under-appreciated trend in the history of our species: the decline of violence. Cruelty as popular entertainment, human sacrifice to indulge superstition, slavery as a labour-saving device, genocide for convenience, torture and mutilation as routine forms of punishment, execution for trivial crimes and misdemeanors, assassination as a means of political succession, pogroms as an outlet for frustration, and homicide as the major means of conflict resolution - all were unexceptionable features of life for most of human history. Yet today they are statistically rare in the West, less common elsewhere than they used to be, and widely condemned when they do occur.

Most people, sickened by the headlines and the bloody history of the 20th century, find this claim incredible. Yet as far as I know, every systematic attempt to document the prevalence of violence over centuries and millennia (and, for that matter, the past 50 years), particularly in the West, has shown that the overall trend is downward (though of course with many zigzags). What went right? No one knows, possibly because we have been asking the wrong question - "Why is there war?" instead of "Why is there peace?"

There have been some suggestions, all unproven. Perhaps the gradual perfecting of a democratic Leviathan - "a common power to keep [men] in awe" - has removed the incentive to do it to them before they do it to us. James Payne, author of The History of Force, suggests that it's because, for many people, life has become longer and less awful - when pain, tragedy and early death are expected (omega) features of one's own life, one feels fewer compunctions about inflicting them on others. The award-winning science writer Robert Wright points to technologies that enhance networks of reciprocity and trade, which make other people more valuable alive than dead. The Australian philosopher Peter Singer attributes it to the inexorable logic of the golden rule: the more one knows and thinks, the harder it is to privilege one's own interests over those of other sentient beings. Perhaps this is amplified by cosmopolitanism, in which history, journalism, memoir and realistic fiction make the inner lives of other people, and the contingent nature of one's own station, more palpable - the feeling that "there but for fortune go I..."

Larry Sanger

Co-founder, Wikipedia

Enlightenment

I am optimistic about humanity's coming enlightenment.

In particular, I am optimistic about humanity's prospects for starting exemplary new collaboratively developed knowledge resources. When we hit upon the correct models for collaborative knowledge-collection online, there will be a jaw-dropping, unprecedented, paradigm-shifting explosion in the availability of high-quality free knowledge.

Lord (Martin) Rees

President, The Royal Society; Professor of Cosmology & Astrophysics; Master, Trinity College, University of Cambridge; author, 'Our Final Century: The 50/50 Threat to Humanity's Survival'

The energy challenge

A few years ago, I wrote a short book entitled 'Our Final Century'. I guessed that, taking all risks into account, there was only a 50 per cent chance that civilisation would get through to 2100 without a disastrous setback. This seemed to me a far from cheerful conclusion. However, I was surprised by the way my colleagues reacted to the book: many thought a catastrophe was even more likely than I did, and regarded me as an optimist. I stand by this optimism.

There are indeed powerful grounds for being a techno-optimist. For most people in most nations, there's never been a better time to be alive. The innovations that will drive economic advance - information technology, biotech and nanotech - can boost the developing as well as the developed world. We're becoming embedded in a cyberspace that can link anyone, anywhere, to all the world's information and culture - and to every other person on the planet. Creativity in science and the arts is open to hugely more than in the past. Twenty-first century technologies will offer lifestyles that are environmentally benign - involving lower demands on energy or resources than what we'd consider a good life today. And we could readily raise the funds - were there the political will - to lift the world's two billion most deprived people from their extreme poverty.

Later in this century, mind-enhancing drugs, genetics, and "cyberg" techniques may change human beings themselves. That's something qualitatively new in recorded history - and it will pose novel ethical conundrums. Our species could be transformed and diversified (here on Earth and perhaps beyond) within just a few centuries.

My number-one priority would be much-expanded research and development into a whole raft of techniques for storing energy and generating it by "clean" or low-carbon methods. The stakes are high - the world spends nearly three trillion dollars per year on energy and its infrastructure. This effort can engage not just those in privileged technical environments in advanced countries, but a far wider talent pool. Even if we discount climate change completely, the quest for clean energy is worthwhile on grounds of energy security, diversity and efficiency. This goal deserves a priority and commitment from governments akin to that accorded to the Manhattan project or the Apollo moon landing.

Peter Schwartz

Futurist; business strategist; co-founder, Global Business Network, a Monitor Company; author, 'The Long Boom'

Growing older

I turned 60 this year and several decades ago I would have looked forward to a steady decline in all my physical and mental capabilities, leading into a long and messy death. The accelerating pace of biological and medical advances that are unfolding in front of us are heavily focused on reducing the infirmities of ageing and curing or transforming the diseases of old age from fatal to chronic. It means that 90 really will be the new 60 and there is a good chance that I will be among the vigorous new centenarians of mid century, with most of my faculties working fairly well.

Vision, hearing, memory, cognition, bone and muscle strength, skin tone, hair and, of course, sexual vigour will all be remediable in the near future. Alzheimer's may be curable and most cancers are likely to be treatable if not curable. And regenerative medicine may truly lead to real increase in youthfulness as new custom-grown organs replace old, less-functional ones. And, within a few decades, we are likely to be able to slow ageing itself, which could even lead to life beyond 120.

Judith Rich Harris

Independent investigator and theoretician; author, 'No Two Alike: Human Nature and Human Individuality'

Friendship

I am optimistic about human relationships - in particular, about friendship. Perhaps you have heard gloomy predictions about friendship: it's dying out, people no longer have friends they can confide in, loneliness is on the rise.

But friendship isn't dying out: it's just changing, adapting to the changes in the world. People are discovering different ways of getting together. It may be harder to find a bowling partner but it's easier to find someone to chat with, because there are more ways to chat.

When I was a child, people with chronic illnesses were described as "shut-ins". Now, a person can be shut in without being shut out. I have friends whom I know only through email conversations but who are as dear to me as my college roommate and dearer by far than my next-door neighbour.

W Daniel Hillis

Physicist; computer scientist; chairman, Applied Minds, Inc; author, 'The Pattern on the Stone'

Demographics

I am optimistic about humankind's ability to reach a sustainable balance with other life on Earth, in part because the number of humans on Earth will soon start to decrease. This doesn't mean that I think we should ignore our environmental problem - just the (omega) opposite: I think we should fight hard now with the confidence that we can win a complete and lasting victory.

We are so accustomed to watching the explosion of human growth and development that it is easy to imagine that this is normal. It is not. We are the first generation in history that has watched the human population double in our own lifetime, and no future generation is likely to see it again. All of those blights of growth that we have come to accept - crowded cites, jammed roads, expanding suburbs, fish-depleted oceans and tree-stripped forests - are all symptoms of a one-of-a-kind surge in human expansion. Soon, they will be just memories.

There are currently over six billion people in the world. There will probably never be more than 10 billion. Population forecasts vary, but they all agree that human population growth is slowing. As people become more prosperous, they have smaller families. In every country where women are allowed free access to education and healthcare, rates of population growth are going down. Sometimes the trends are hidden by the delays of demographics, but the real population growth rates are already negative in Europe, China and, if we subtract immigration, the US. The total human population is still growing, but not as fast as it once was. Assuming that these trends continue, the total population of the world will be shrinking well before the end of this century.

There is no doubt that the environmental challenges of the next decades are daunting, and they will require all the power of human striving and creativity to overcome them. Yet I have no doubt that we will succeed. Innovation, good will and determined effort will be enough to handle the next few billion people. Then, as populations shrink, demands on resources will be reduced. Nature will begin to repair itself, reclaiming what we have so hastily taken. I hope we manage to keep the gorillas, elephants and rhinoceroses alive. By the end of the century, they will have room to roam.

Timothy Taylor

Archaeologist, University of Bradford; author, 'The Buried Soul'

Skeuomorphism

In a small wire tidy on my desk I have several corks. But they are not cork. In the 1980s, demand for high-quality cork began to outstrip supply. As low-grade cork often taints (or "corks") wine, substitutes were sought. My corks are synthetic. One is cork-coloured and slightly variegated to make it appear traditional; like real corks in the German Riesling tradition, it is stamped in black with a vine tendril motif. Another is less convincingly mottled, and is mid-yellow in colour with the name of the vintner, Gianni Vescovo, printed in bold black. Both these corks are skeuomorphs - objects that preserve formal vestiges of the constraints of an original no longer strictly necessary in the new material. First-generation skeuomorphs are close mimics, even fakes.

Second-generation skeuomorphs, such as the Vescovo cork, abandon any serious attempt at deception. Its mottling, and the fact that it is still a functional cork, rather than a metal screwtop closure, is a comforting nod to the history of wine. At the same time it signals a new, more consistent, freedom from contamination. As synthetic corks became more familiar, new and more baroque forms arose. These third-generation skeuomorphs are fun: a bright-purple cork that stoppered an Australian red suggests a grape colour, while a black cork has a hi-tech look that draws symbolic attention to the new techniques of low-temperature fermentation in stainless-steel.

I see much of the history of technology as an unplanned trajectory in which emergent skeuomorphic qualities often turn out to have been critical. Corks are a relatively trivial example in an extraordinary history of skeuomorphism, impossible to review here, but which encompasses critical turns in material development from prehistoric flint, via the discovery of metals and alloys, to complex compound objects, of which computers are a modern manifestation.

I grew up with Alan Turing's unsettling vision of a future machine indistinguishable from a human in its reactions. Ray Kurzweil's provocative prediction of the impending "singularity" - the point when computer intelligence would start to leave humans gasping in its intellectual wake - added to my fears.

I have recently become quite relaxed about all this. Computers' eventual power will probably not be in simulation or deception. Instead, by surpassing us in some areas, they will relieve our brains and bodies of repetitive effort. If they behave as other skeuomorphs before them, it will be computers' currently unimagined emergent qualities that we will come to value most, enhancing and complementing our humanity rather than competing with and superseding it.

David Bodanis

Writer; futurist; author, 'Passionate Minds'

Decency

I'm optimistic because there's a core decency in people that even the worst machinations of governments can't entirely hold down. The Evelina Hospital [in Southwark, London] is the first new children's hospital that's been built in the city in a century. There's a giant atrium in the middle, and the contract with the company doing the cleaning says that the window cleaners need to dress up as superheroes. The children in bed - many with grave illnesses - delight in seeing Superman and Spiderman dangling just inches away from them, on the outside of the glass; apparently for the cleaners it's one of the highlights of their week. The government has wasted a fortune on consultants, bureaucracy and reorganisations of the NHS. It's always defended in cold management-speak. This simple arrangement with the window cleaners cuts through all that. Everyone I've mentioned it to recognises that - and in that recognition, lies our hope.

Gloria Origgi

Philosopher and researcher, Centre Nationale de la Recherche Scientifique; author, 'Text-E: Text in the Age of the Internet'

Europe

I'm optimistic about Europe. On 30 May 2005, the day after the French rejected in a referendum the project of the European Constitution, I was travelling on the Thalys high-speed train from Paris to Brussels for a committee meeting at the European Community. The train was full people of my age - in their thirties - going to Brussels as "experts" in various domains to attend meetings and participate in various EC projects. I looked around and started chatting with my neighbours. The conversation was light, mainly about restaurants and bars in Brussels or new exhibitions and movies. Most of the people I spoke with came from more than one cultural background, with two or more nationalities in the family: say, father from Germany, mother from Ireland, grown up in Rotterdam. All of us were at least bilingual, many trilingual or more.

I quickly realised that asking the opening question of ordinary train encounters, "Where are you from?", had become patently obsolete. The image was quite at odds with the newspapers' and politicians' cliché of the prototypical EC officer as a grey, square, hideously boring civil servant in a checkered jacket, wasting time inventing useless bureaucratic rules. My neighbours epitomised (omega) the deep cultural change that is now taking place in Europe. A new generation has grown up - people born more than a quarter of a century after the end of the Second World War and now moving around Europe to study, work, meet, date, marry and have children with people from other European countries, and do so as a matter of course.

Walter Isaacson

President & CEO, Aspen Institute; former CEO, CNN; former managing editor, 'Time'; author, 'Benjamin Franklin: An American Life'

Print as a technology

I am very optimistic about print as a technology. Words on paper are a wonderful information storage, retrieval, distribution and consumer product. Imagine if we had been getting our information delivered digitally to our screens for the past 400 years. Then some modern Gutenberg had come up with a technology that was able to transfer these words and pictures on to pages that could be delivered to our doorstep, and we could take them to the backyard, the bath, or the bus. We would be thrilled with this technological leap forward, and we would predict that someday it might replace the internet.

Simon Baron-Cohen

Psychologist, Autism Research Centre, Cambridge University; author, 'The Essential Difference'

The rise of autism

Whichever country I travel to, attending conferences on the subject of autism, I hear the same story: autism is on the increase. Thus, in 1978, the rate of autism was four in 10,000 children, but today (according to a Lancet article in 2006) it is 1 per cent. No one quite knows what this increase is due to, though conservatively it is put down to better recognition, better services, and broadening the diagnostic category to include milder cases such as Asperger's syndrome.

It is neither proven nor disproven that the increase might reflect other factors, such as genetic change or some environmental (eg, hormonal) change. And for scientists to answer the question of what is driving this increase will require imaginative research comparing historical as well as cross-cultural data. Some may throw up their hands at this increase in autism and feel despair and pessimism. They may feel that the future is bleak for all of these newly diagnosed cases of autism. But I remain optimistic that, for a good proportion of them, it has never been a better time to have autism.

Why? Because there is a remarkably good fit between the autistic mind and the digital age. Computers operate on the basis of extreme precision, and so does the autistic mind. Computers are systems, and the autistic mind is the ultimate systemiser. The inherently ambiguous and unpredictable world of people and emotions is a turn-off for someone with autism, but a rapid series of clicks of the mouse that leads to the same result every time that sequence is performed is reassuringly attractive. Many children with autism develop an intuitive understanding of computers in the same way that other children develop an intuitive understanding of people.

So, why am I optimistic? For this new generation of children with autism, I anticipate that many of them will find ways to blossom, using their skills with digital technology to find employment, to find friends, and in some cases to innovate.

George Dyson

Science historian; author, 'Darwin Among the Machines'

The return of commercial sail

I am optimistic about the return of commercial sail. Hybrid sail/electric vessels will proliferate by harvesting energy from the wind. Sailing ships turn wind energy directly into long-distance transport, but the practice was abandoned in an era of cheap fuel. The prospects deserve a second look. It is possible to not only conserve, but even accumulate fuel reserves by sailing around the world. Modern sailing-vessel design, so far, has been constrained by two imperatives: racing and ability to sail upwind. Under favourable conditions, sails produce far more horsepower than is needed to drive a ship. At marginal sacrifice in speed, by running the auxiliary propulsion system in reverse, this energy can be stored. Hybrid vessels, able to store large amounts of energy would be free to roam the world. The trade winds constitute an enormous engine waiting to be put to use. When oil becomes expensive enough, we will.

David Deutsch

Quantum physicist, Oxford University; author, 'The Fabric of Reality'

Whether solutions are possible

They always are. Why is that important? Firstly, because it is true. There is no anthropocentric spite built into the laws of physics, mandating that human improvement may proceed this far and no further. Nor is the dark, neo-religious fantasy true that Nature abhors human hubris, and always exacts a hidden price that outweighs any apparent success, so that "progress" always has to be in scare quotes. And secondly, because how we explain failure, both prospectively and retrospectively, is itself a major determinant of success. If we are optimistic that failure to improve ourselves means merely that we haven't found the solution yet, then success is never due to divine grace (nowadays known as "natural resources") but always to human effort and creativity, and failure is opportunity.

Matt Ridley

Science writer; founding chairman of the International Centre for Life; author, 'Francis Crick: Discoverer of the Genetic Code'

The future

The historian Macaulay said, in 1830: "We cannot absolutely prove that those are in error who tell us that society has reached a turning point, that we have seen our best days. But so said all who came before us and with just as much apparent reason." The enduring pessimism of human beings about the future does real harm by persuading people, especially the young, to retreat from adventure and enterprise into anomie. Sure, the world has problems: Aids, Islamofascism, carbon dioxide. But I bet we can solve them as we have solved others - such as smallpox, the population explosion and the high price of whale oil. s

The full-length versions of these pieces (and many more) can be found at www.edge.org, a website founded by John Brockman.'What Is Your Dangerous Idea?', by John Brockman (Editor), is published by Simon & Schuster, £12.99; 'What We Believe But Cannot Prove', by John Brockman (Editor), is published by Pocket Books, £7.99

The Independent [1.20.07]

Global warming, the war on terror and rampant consumerism getting you down? Well, lighten up: here, 17 of the world's smartest scientists and academics share their reasons to be cheerful

Brian Eno, Artist; composer; producer (U2, Talking Heads, Paul Simon); recording artist

Big government

Things change for the better either because something went wrong or because something went right. Recently, we've seen an example of the former, and this failure fills me with optimism. ...

Larry Sanger, Co-founder, Wikipedia

Enlightenment

I am optimistic about humanity's coming enlightenment.

In particular, I am optimistic about humanity's prospects for starting exemplary new collaboratively developed knowledge resources. When we hit upon the correct models for collaborative knowledge-collection online, there will be a jaw-dropping, unprecedented, paradigm-shifting explosion in the availability of high-quality free knowledge.

Lord (Martin) Rees, President, The Royal Society; Professor of Cosmology & Astrophysics; Master, Trinity College, University of Cambridge; author, 'Our Final Century: The 50/50 Threat to Humanity's Survival'

The energy challenge

A few years ago, I wrote a short book entitled 'Our Final Century'. I guessed that, taking all risks into account, there was only a 50 per cent chance that civilisation would get through to 2100 without a disastrous setback. This seemed to me a far from cheerful conclusion. However, I was surprised by the way my colleagues reacted to the book: many thought a catastrophe was even more likely than I did, and regarded me as an optimist. I stand by this optimism....

Judith Rich Harris, Independent investigator and theoretician; author, 'No Two Alike: Human Nature and Human Individuality'

Friendship

I am optimistic about human relationships - in particular, about friendship. Perhaps you have heard gloomy predictions about friendship: it's dying out, people no longer have friends they can confide in, loneliness is on the rise....

The full-length versions of these pieces (and many more) can be found at www.edge.org, a website founded by John Brockman.'What Is Your Dangerous Idea?', by John Brockman (Editor), is published by Simon & Schuster, £12.99; 'What We Believe But Cannot Prove', by John Brockman (Editor), is published by Pocket Books, £7.99

THE AGE — MELBOURNE [1.19.07]

THE WORD WENT OUT TO some of the world's leading scientists and thinkers: just what is your dangerous idea? Ideas defined as dangerous not because they're assumed to be false but because they might be true. Spanning multi-disciplinary topics including biology, genetics, neuroscience, psychology and physics, this volume is full of provocative, speculative and plain mischievous arguments. Ask people to play devil's advocate and the results are fascinating. Maybe we're all marionettes dancing on genetic strings; maybe we have no souls or perhaps we may all even "house homicidal circuits within our brains". One bright spark even posits that the very notion of disseminating dangerous ideas (even in a safe, playful medium such as this one) is itself dangerous because ideas can be powerful forces. ...

WEEKEND AMERICA [1.19.07]

 
It's time to set our watches again. The Doomsday Clock moved two minutes closer to midnight this week. This is of course just a symbolic clock that's wound every now and then by board members of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists. In 1947 the BAS started using the clock to measure how close we are to global nuclear annihilation. The closer the minute hand gets to midnight, the more doomed we are. And as of Wednesday, it's 11:55. We asked Weekend America's Sean Cole to look into how doomed we are and if there's anyone who might be able to offer a second opinion.

THE GUARDIAN [1.19.07]

In a sly joke, the deity who invented music made sure that the mathematical proportions of "pure" acoustic intervals don't quite add up properly. So in order to play harmonically rich music in different keys, you have to skew the tuning in one way or another. Our current method is called "equal temperament", which is what modern pianos have, and in which the major thirds are sharp and the fifths are flat. Lots of people think that Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier was propaganda for equal temperament, and that everyone settled on it soon thereafter. But, as Duffin's scholarly and enjoyably pugnacious book shows, that's not the case: Bach used a different temperament, which slightly favoured some keys over others. Equal temperament was not universally adopted until the 20th century, and Duffin thinks it should still not be the default. He offers cute capsule biographies of major thinkers in the tuning debates and arguments, based on score markings and other evidence, about what composers such as Haydn or Beethoven would have expected. He even imports early records into a software program to analyse the pitches and find out how people were tuning their violins. Most controversial is his argument that string players should play leading notes flatter than in equal temperament (in order to favour harmonic consonance over melodic shape), rather than sharper, as they have traditionally done. None the less, his fine book should make any contemporary musician think differently about tuning.

The Original Accident, by Paul Virilio (Polity, £14.99)

To invent the train, says Virilio, is to invent the train wreck. Our society is predicated on the industrial accident, which only recently leapfrogged the natural disaster in destructive power. From this spiky proposition, Virilio, the ludic French "dromologist" (student of speed), careers off on a kind of intellectual rollercoaster that takes in Aristotle, Chernobyl, the twin towers, genetic engineering, the privatisation of police forces, cosmology, Rabelais, killer asteroids, and a wonderful short story by Ursula Le Guin, written from the point of view of a tree. Virilio's breakneck pattern-recognition method is apt to spark new thoughts in some readers' heads, even if his images are sometimes hostages to pedantry: "If knowledge can be shown as a sphere whose volume is endlessly expanding," Virilio writes, "the area of contact with the unknown is growing out of all proportion." Does it matter that the surface-area-to-volume ratio actually shrinks, not expands, when a sphere grows? I leave it to you to decide.

What Is Your Dangerous Idea?, edited by John Brockman (Simon & Schuster, £12.99)

The results of the 2005 Question at edge.org, posed by Steven Pinker, are in. Apart from an exasperating section about "memes" (are they still fashionable?) and a few Eeyorish dullards, it's a titillating compilation. Physicist Freeman Dyson predicts that home biotech kits will become common; others posit that democracy may be a blip and "on its way out", that "heroism" is just as banal as evil, and that it will be proven that free will does not exist. There are also far-out but thought-provoking notions: that, given the decadent temptations of virtual reality, the only civilisations of any species that survive to colonise the galaxy will be puritan fundamentalists; or that the internet may already be aware of itself. I particularly enjoyed cognitive scientist Donald D Hoffman's gnomic pronouncement that "a spoon is like a headache", and mathematician Rudy Rucker's robust defence of panpsychism, the idea that "every object has a mind. Stars, hills, chairs, rocks, scraps of paper, flakes of skin, molecules". Careful what you do with this newspaper after you've read it.

Weekend america [1.19.07]

Edgie's Chris Anderson of TED and Robert Provine of University of Maryland as the proponents of optimism on program concerning Optimism and the Doomsday Clock

The Guardian [1.19.07]

What Is Your Dangerous Idea?, edited by John Brockman (Simon & Schuster, £12.99)

The results of the 2005 Question at edge.org, posed by Steven Pinker, are in. Apart from an exasperating section about "memes" (are they still fashionable?) and a few Eeyorish dullards, it's a titillating compilation. Physicist Freeman Dyson predicts that home biotech kits will become common; others posit that democracy may be a blip and "on its way out", that "heroism" is just as banal as evil, and that it will be proven that free will does not exist. There are also far-out but thought-provoking notions: that, given the decadent temptations of virtual reality, the only civilisations of any species that survive to colonise the galaxy will be puritan fundamentalists; or that the internet may already be aware of itself. I particularly enjoyed cognitive scientist Donald D Hoffman's gnomic pronouncement that "a spoon is like a headache", and mathematician Rudy Rucker's robust defence of panpsychism, the idea that "every object has a mind. Stars, hills, chairs, rocks, scraps of paper, flakes of skin, molecules". Careful what you do with this newspaper after you've read it.

Science [1.10.07]

Qubits for dollars. Quantum computing guru David Deutsch is the first recipient of the $95,000 Edge of Computation Science Prize for researchers whose computerrelated ideas touch on broader questions about life, the universe, and everything. 

The 52-year-old Deutsch, at the University of Oxford,U.K., provided the first blueprints for a universal quantum computer in 1985, bringing to life an earlier suggestion from physicist Richard Feynman.Quantum computation,which theoretically is exponentially faster than classical computing, could potentially speed up calculations that currently hamper fields such as physics, biology, and nanotechnology. 

"Deutsch clearly deserved the prize because of his seminal role in creating and furthering quantum computation", says physicist and computer scientist Seth Lloyd of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, who was a judge. But it's an unusual reward that transcends disciplines; other nominees were from fields of computational biology, software development, and communications, he notes."I'll be very interested to see who wins it next," says Lloyd.

The prize is funded by philanthropist Jeffrey Epstein.

The Times [1.9.07]

Multiverse enthusiasts have in turn accused the unification theorists of promissory triumphalism because nobody has yet demonstrated a credible unique theory, let alone predicted the values of any Goldilocks parameters. This acrimonious wrangling reveals deep divisions concerning the ultimate goal of science, the nature of physical reality and the place of conscious observers in the grand scheme of things. It raises far-reaching and unresolved problems, such as what is life and what is the universe? Over the past couple of decades, physicists, cosmologists, biologists and other scientists have discussed these foundational questions of science at a growing number of conferences and workshops, or expressed their opinions informally through websites such as www.edge.org or the Los Alamos electronic archive.

REFORMA [1.9.07]

El foro virtual Edge propone buscar razones, no simplemente deseos, para el optimismo. Edge es un club que reúne, segén ellos mismos, algunas de las mentes más interesantes del mundo. Su prop"sito es estimular discusiones en las fronteras del conocimiento. La intenci"n es llegar al borde del conocimiento mundial, acercándose a las mentes más complejas y refinadas, juntarlas en un foro y hacerlos que se pregunten las preguntas que ellos mismos se hacen. La fundaci"n actúa, de este modo, como surtidora de problemas y alojamiento de réplicas. Cada ano se constituye como Centro Mundial de Preguntas. ...

Reforma [1.9.07]

El foro virtual Edge propone buscar razones, no simplemente deseos, para el optimismo. Edge es un club que reúne, segén ellos mismos, algunas de las mentes más interesantes del mundo. Su propósito es estimular discusiones en las fronteras del conocimiento. La intención es llegar al borde del conocimiento mundial, acercándose a las mentes más complejas y refinadas, juntarlas en un foro y hacerlos que se pregunten las preguntas que ellos mismos se hacen. La fundación actúa, de este modo, como surtidora de problemas y alojamiento de réplicas. Cada ano se constituye como Centro Mundial de Preguntas.

The Guardian [1.7.07]

Welcome in the New Year with the Guardian's science team as they ask what we can be optimistic about in 2007. Thinkers such as the Darwinian philosopher Dan Dennett and psychologist Steven Pinker are looking forward respectively to the end of religion and war in 2007—or at least, the beginning of the end. Hear more predictions from web guru and editor of Edge magazine John Brockman.

BLOG: SCIAM OBSERVATIONS [1.7.07]

The affair called to mind a certain meme that I had mentally buried (in the Digg user's sense) but am now forced to revisit with a more open mind. In the November Discover, tech ponderer Jaron Lanier expressed his dismay over the increasing prevalence of "wisdom of crowds" approaches to aggregating information online. See especially Wikipedia and Digg as instances of this phenomenon, also called Web 2.0. Lanier must consider that term itself a masterpiece of framing; he sees a growing glorification of online wisdom-aggregation, and has dubbed the trend Digital Maoism. ...

Anyway, this sort of asymmetrical flamewar doesn't seem to be Lanier's main objection to Digital Maoism. A while back at the Edge.org, on which big brains convene to butt heads, Lanier's argument was abbreviated thusly:

The problem is [not Wikipedia itself but] in the way the Wikipedia has come to be regarded and used; how it's been elevated to such importance so quickly. And that is part of the larger pattern of the appeal of a new online collectivism that is nothing less than a resurgence of the idea that the collective is all-wise, that it is desirable to have influence concentrated in a bottleneck that can channel the collective with the most verity and force. This is different from representative democracy, or meritocracy.  ...

Jaron Lanier, Scientific american [1.7.07]

The affair called to mind a certain meme that I had mentally buried (in the Digg user's sense) but am now forced to revisit with a more open mind. In the November Discover, tech ponderer Jaron Lanier expressed his dismay over the increasing prevalence of "wisdom of crowds" approaches to aggregating information online. See especially Wikipedia and Digg as instances of this phenomenon, also called Web 2.0. Lanier must consider that term itself a masterpiece of framing; he sees a growing glorification of online wisdom-aggregation, and has dubbed the trend Digital Maoism. ...

Anyway, this sort of asymmetrical flamewar doesn't seem to be Lanier's main objection to Digital Maoism. A while back at the Edge.org, on which big brains convene to butt heads, Lanier's argument was abbreviated thusly:

The problem is [not Wikipedia itself but] in the way the Wikipedia has come to be regarded and used; how it's been elevated to such importance so quickly. And that is part of the larger pattern of the appeal of a new online collectivism that is nothing less than a resurgence of the idea that the collective is all-wise, that it is desirable to have influence concentrated in a bottleneck that can channel the collective with the most verity and force. This is different from representative democracy, or meritocracy.

THE GUARDIAN [1.7.07]

Welcome in the New Year with the Guardian's science team as they ask what we can be optimistic about in 2007. Thinkers such as the Darwinian philosopher Dan Dennett and psychologist Steven Pinker are looking forward respectively to the end of religion and war in 2007 - or at least, the beginning of the end. Hear more predictions from web guru and editor of Edge magazine John Brockman.

The UK's new science minister has revived interest in potentially sending a British man or woman into space, something that has been off the political radar for a generation. Host Alok Jha asks space doctor and would-be astronaut Kevin Fong why now is the time for Britain to join the space race.

Madonna wants to "neutralise radiation" and Cherie Blair's lifestyle guru Carol Caplin advises "unclogging" the lymph system to avoid breast cancer. We talk to science author Simon Singh about the damage pseudo-scientific claims from celebrities can do.

And finally, regular podders Ian Sample and James Randerson welcome Simon Raynor from London Zoo to discuss whether animals can really be gay. And check out bonus New Year

Le Monde [1.7.07]

C’est la double question posée par John Brockman, éditeur de Edge à plus de 160 “penseurs de la troisième culture, ces savants et autres penseurs du monde empirique qui, par leur travail ou leurs écrits prennent la place des intellectuels traditionnels en rendant visibles les sens profonds de nos vies, en redéfinissant autant qui nous sommes que ce que nous sommes”.

Ça change des unes constamment catastrophiques de nos médias habituels.

Quelques exemples:

Brian Eno estime que la réalité du réchauffement global est de plus en plus acceptée et que cela pourrait donner lieu à un premier cas de gouvernance globale. D’où sa principale source d’optimisme: “le pouvoir croissant des gens. Le monde bouge, communique, se connecte et fusionne en des blocs d’influence qui transfèreront une partie du pouvoir des gouvernements nationaux prisonniers de leurs horizons à court terme dans des groupes plus vaques, plus globaux et plus consensuels. Quelque chose comme une vraie démocratie (et une bonne dose de chaos dans l’intérim) pourrait être à l’horizon”.

Xeni Jardin de BoingBoing, est optimiste après avoir suivi les travaux de la Forensic Anthropology Foundation du Guatemala, un groupe qui se consacre à identifier les morts assassinés par la dictature en s’appuyant sur des logiciels open source, des ordinateurs recyclés et l’aide de laboratoires américains pour l’analyse de l’ADN. “Quant au moins une personne croit que la vérité ça compte, il y a de l’espoir,” conclue-t-elle.

LE MONDE [1.7.07]

C’est la double question posée par John Brockman, éditeur de Edge à plus de 160 “penseurs de la troisième culture, ces savants et autres penseurs du monde empirique qui, par leur travail ou leurs écrits prennent la place des intellectuels traditionnels en rendant visibles les sens profonds de nos vies, en redéfinissant autant qui nous sommes que ce que nous sommes”.

Ça change des unes constamment catastrophiques de nos médias habituels.

Quelques exemples:

Brian Eno estime que la réalité du réchauffement global est de plus en plus acceptée et que cela pourrait donner lieu à un premier cas de gouvernance globale. D’où sa principale source d’optimisme: “le pouvoir croissant des gens. Le monde bouge, communique, se connecte et fusionne en des blocs d’influence qui transfèreront une partie du pouvoir des gouvernements nationaux prisonniers de leurs horizons à court terme dans des groupes plus vaques, plus globaux et plus consensuels. Quelque chose comme une vraie démocratie (et une bonne dose de chaos dans l’intérim) pourrait être à l’horizon”.

Xeni Jardin de BoingBoing, est optimiste après avoir suivi les travaux de la Forensic Anthropology Foundation du Guatemala, un groupe qui se consacre à identifier les morts assassinés par la dictature en s’appuyant sur des logiciels open source, des ordinateurs recyclés et l’aide de laboratoires américains pour l’analyse de l’ADN. “Quant au moins une personne croit que la vérité ça compte, il y a de l’espoir,” conclue-t-elle.

Quant à Howard Rheingold, dans une phrase qui fait penser à l’ambigüité de ses “Smart Mobs”, il fonde son optimisme sur le fait que “les outils de la production et de la distribution culturelle sont dans les poches de ceux qui ont 14 ans.” Sa confiance n’est pas aveugle mais il préfère les “digital natives” qui produisent, aux vieux qui se contentaient de recevoir l’information.

Mon optimisme à moi se situe à l’intersection des technologies de l’information et d’une nouvelle culture de la participation sociale qui est en train de s’inventer un peu partout dans le monde. A mesure qu’ils s’en servent un nombre croissant de personnes et d’organisations (souvent informelles et transitoires) de tous ordres se rendent compte du potentiel perturbateur des technologies de l’information. Ils commencent à s’en servir, à se les approprier et grignottent ainsi du terrain face aux pouvoirs traditionnels. Aucune promesse de paradis là-dedans mais, dans le meilleur des cas, l’identification – à temps – de nouveaux espaces d’affrontements que nous pouvons donc encore espérer configurer.

Et vous… Dans quel domaine êtes-vous optimiste? Et pourquoi?

LE MONDE [1.7.07]

C’est la double question posée par John Brockman, éditeur de Edge à plus de 160 “penseurs de la troisième culture, ces savants et autres penseurs du monde empirique qui, par leur travail ou leurs écrits prennent la place des intellectuels traditionnels en rendant visibles les sens profonds de nos vies, en redéfinissant autant qui nous sommes que ce que nous sommes”.

Ça change des unes constamment catastrophiques de nos médias habituels.

Quelques exemples:

Brian Eno estime que la réalité du réchauffement global est de plus en plus acceptée et que cela pourrait donner lieu à un premier cas de gouvernance globale. D’où sa principale source d’optimisme: “le pouvoir croissant des gens. Le monde bouge, communique, se connecte et fusionne en des blocs d’influence qui transfèreront une partie du pouvoir des gouvernements nationaux prisonniers de leurs horizons à court terme dans des groupes plus vaques, plus globaux et plus consensuels. Quelque chose comme une vraie démocratie (et une bonne dose de chaos dans l’intérim) pourrait être à l’horizon”.

Xeni Jardin de BoingBoing, est optimiste après avoir suivi les travaux de la Forensic Anthropology Foundation du Guatemala, un groupe qui se consacre à identifier les morts assassinés par la dictature en s’appuyant sur des logiciels open source, des ordinateurs recyclés et l’aide de laboratoires américains pour l’analyse de l’ADN. “Quant au moins une personne croit que la vérité ça compte, il y a de l’espoir,” conclue-t-elle.

Quant à Howard Rheingold, dans une phrase qui fait penser à l’ambigüité de ses “Smart Mobs”, il fonde son optimisme sur le fait que “les outils de la production et de la distribution culturelle sont dans les poches de ceux qui ont 14 ans.” Sa confiance n’est pas aveugle mais il préfère les “digital natives” qui produisent, aux vieux qui se contentaient de recevoir l’information.

Mon optimisme à moi se situe à l’intersection des technologies de l’information et d’une nouvelle culture de la participation sociale qui est en train de s’inventer un peu partout dans le monde. A mesure qu’ils s’en servent un nombre croissant de personnes et d’organisations (souvent informelles et transitoires) de tous ordres se rendent compte du potentiel perturbateur des technologies de l’information. Ils commencent à s’en servir, à se les approprier et grignottent ainsi du terrain face aux pouvoirs traditionnels. Aucune promesse de paradis là-dedans mais, dans le meilleur des cas, l’identification – à temps – de nouveaux espaces d’affrontements que nous pouvons donc encore espérer configurer.

Et vous… Dans quel domaine êtes-vous optimiste? Et pourquoi?

CENTREDAILY.COM [1.6.07]

...Into my season of gloom, a ray of hope arrived the other day via the Internet, benefit of the Web site called Edge. As I understand it, Edge is an electronic gathering place for scientists, artists and other creative thinkers. Most of them are out traveling on the far reaches of the high-tech superhighway, sending us their postcards from a few years in the future. ...

Chris Anderson, who is the curator for an intellectual gathering called the TED Conference, makes a similar point. He says that the number of armed conflicts has declined worldwide by 40 percent in the past decade.

If the world seems ever more threatening, it is because we are wired to respond more strongly to threats than we are to good news. Besides, good news such as scientific discovery and economic progress is largely under-reported in the media, while disaster and doom are hugely over-reported.

I was cheered by the optimism of a science writer who thinks that we will soon have a technological breakthrough that will make solar energy dirt cheap long before the big energy crunch arrives. He's not sure which of the many bright ideas he has written about will be the one that works, but he has faith in the scientists who are pushing at the boundaries of the technology. ...

The Edge contributors fanned the flame of optimism in me in the season of darkness.

Centre Daily [1.6.07]

...Into my season of gloom, a ray of hope arrived the other day via the Internet, benefit of the Web site called Edge.

As I understand it, Edge is an electronic gathering place for scientists, artists and other creative thinkers. Most of them are out traveling on the far reaches of the high-tech superhighway, sending us their postcards from a few years in the future. ...

Chris Anderson, who is the curator for an intellectual gathering called the TED Conference, makes a similar point. He says that the number of armed conflicts has declined worldwide by 40 percent in the past decade.

If the world seems ever more threatening, it is because we are wired to respond more strongly to threats than we are to good news. Besides, good news such as scientific discovery and economic progress is largely under-reported in the media, while disaster and doom are hugely over-reported.

I was cheered by the optimism of a science writer who thinks that we will soon have a technological breakthrough that will make solar energy dirt cheap long before the big energy crunch arrives. He's not sure which of the many bright ideas he has written about will be the one that works, but he has faith in the scientists who are pushing at the boundaries of the technology. ...

The Edge contributors fanned the flame of optimism in me in the season of darkness.

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