2007 : WHAT ARE YOU OPTIMISTIC ABOUT?

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Writer and Television Producer; Author, Remembering Our Childhood: How Memory Betrays Us
Writer and Television Producer; Author, The Riemann Hypothesis

The Optimism of Scientists

To ask "what am I optimistic about?" is rather like asking "what am I tall about? or "what am I English about?" For me, optimism is a personal characteristic rather than an attitude to be applied to some things and not others. Fortunately it is a characteristic that many scientists have and others acquire, and I am optimistic that this optimism will continue to be a unique human characteristic. Without optimism, why would anyone embark on the complex and interrelated series of steps that makes up any scientific experiment, let alone huge enterprises like the Manhattan or Apollo projects? And faced with disasters like Challenger and Columbia, and the results of inquiries into how they happen, how could anyone have the faith to continue unless they were extremely optimistic?

The Large Hadron Collider at CERN is perhaps the greatest testament to this optimism. Conceived decades ago, absorbing two and a half billion dollars, a collaboration between over 40 countries, designed to accelerate invisible particles to 99.999999 the speed of light and to create a theoretical entity, the Higgs Boson, for which no evidence exists — if this is not a triumph of optimism over realism, I don't know what is.

And I believe this optimism is more than just logical and reasoned inference from previous researches. Scientists are optimistic about science in general as a tool for discovery. They believe that the methods of science will produce valid results. They believe that whatever aspect of the universe they turn their attention towards, even if never previously explored, they can design experiments and carry out observations that will be valid and provide sustainable increments in our understanding. Is this optimism unique to science? I believe it is. No one has such strong faith in the future benefits of politics or economics or art or philosophy or technology. Some favour capitalism, others socialism; some favour nuclear power, others renewable energy; some believe in a wide-ranging humanistic education, others believe in vocational training; some believe in nationalism, others in internationalism. But scientists believe in science — that is an indication of their optimism.