SCIENTISTS' ANXIETIES AND SONIC WONDERS

[ Mon. Jan. 27. 2014 ]

Events and reading matter at the intersection of science and culture.


BOOKS

“What Should We Be Worried About?: Real Scenarios That Keep Scientists Up at Night” by John Brockman

Last year,the literary agent John Brockman asked scientists about their concerns for the future, and this book, which collects their responses, reads like an atlas of fear. Health is an issue: The genomicist Craig Venter worries that “the unvaccinated ... could take humanity back to the pre-antibiotic era.” But the most common concerns are about the Internet. Some lament a near-future where “everyone is only pretending to pay attention” while they check email on Google Glass, while others, like the philosopher Daniel Dennett, worry that if the Internet were to go down, by error or terror, we wouldn’t have much of a backup plan. After hundreds of pages of worst-case scenarios, the psychologist Gary Klein admits to some anxiety fatigue, blaming the “science/media complex” for overplaying mild threats. The cognitive scientist Steven Pinker seems to agree, writing that while it is natural to worry about “physical stuff like weaponry and resources” the real threats are “psychological stuff like ideologies and norms.” But the shortest and calmest of the responses is from the filmmaker Terry Gilliam, who writes: “I’ve given up worrying. I merely float on a tsunami of acceptance... and marvel stupidly.”