What Are You Optimistic About?
Ed., John Brockman
Simon & Schuster, $29.95
EVERY YEAR, JOHN Brockman, co-founder of the Edge website (a space for scientists and other "empirical thinkers" to exchange ideas), asks his online community to respond to a question. For the past three years, the results have been compiled for wider dissemination. It's a great idea, but with a self-selecting contributor list, the result is somewhat skewed. The subtitle boasts of "today's leading thinkers" but, strictly speaking, this should be "today's leading scientific thinkers". A more balanced anthology would have more than a smattering of contributors from other fields. Further, the almost 150 contributors are predominantly US-based, limiting the perspective.
It is, nevertheless, full of fascinating discussion. Common themes emerge, such as the coming downfall of religion; increased longevity; and a belief that environmental damage will be redressed if not undone, provided we act immediately. Subjects are not confined to what are traditionally seen as scientific issues - there are also multiple pieces about happiness, morality and democracy.
The definition of optimism given by a contributor, that it is "a way of viewing possible futures with the belief that you can affect things for the better", is a reminder of the need for action to be combined with the sort of deep thinking reflected in this collection.