Most of us have learned from long experience that in all walks of life it’s important to engage with the thinking of the next generation, to better understand not just what is going on in our own time but what issues society will face in the future. This exercise is especially valuable in science, where so many of the important discoveries are made by those in emerging generations. To see what today’s brilliant young scientists are up to is the impetus for bringing together this collection of brief essays.
The eighteen young scientists featured here are investigating a variety of questions that will have long-term and fundamental effects on the way we live— and even on how we see ourselves and our place in the universe. Their ideas will eventually help to redefine who and what we are.
To generate this list of contributors, I approached some of today’s leading scientists and asked them to name some of the rising stars in their respective disciplines: those who, in their research, are tackling some of science’s toughest questions and raising new ones. The list that resulted amounts to a representative who’s who of the coming generation of scientists. They are:
Laurence C. Smith: "Will We Decamp for the Northern Rim?"
Christian Keysers: "Mirror Neurons: Are we Ethical By Nature"
Nick Bostrom: "How Shall We Enhance Human Beings?"
Sean Carroll : "Our Place in an Unnatural Universe"
Stephon H. S. Alexander: "Just What is dark Energy?"
Sarah-Jayne Blakemore: "Development of the Social Brain in Adolescence"
Jason P. Mitchell: "Watching Minds Interact"
Matthew D. Lieberman: "What Makes Big Ideas Sticky?"
Joshua D. Greene: "Fruit Flies of the Moral Mind"
Lera Boroditsky: "Do Our Languages Shape the Way We Think?"
Sam Cooke: "Memory Enhancement, Memory Erasure: Is this the Future of Our Past?"
Deena Skolnick Weisberg: "The Vital Importance of Imagination"
David M. Eagleman: "Brain Time"
Vanessa Woods & Brian Hare: "Our of our Minds: How DId Humans Come Down From the Trees and Why Did No One Follow?"
Nathan Wolfe: "The Aliens Among Us"
Seirian Sumner: "How Did the Social Insects Become Social?"
Katerina Harvati : "Extinction and the Evolution of Humankind"
Gavin Schmidt: "Why Hasn't Specialization led to the Balkanization of Science?"
I have asked each of the contributors to write about the questions they’re asking themselves with respect to their field of study. Their essays are especially fresh, as many of these authors have not yet had the time or opportunity to write for a broad nonacademic audience.
The enthusiasm of these young researchers for their work, and their passion for science, is evident. Their bold exploration of new ideas and their attempts to stretch the boundary of what is known are inspiring. It is my hope that What’s Next? will give readers a head start on comprehending what may well be in store for all of us in the future.
Adapted from the Preface. First published in What's Next: Dispatches from a New Generation of Scientists, Edited By Max Brockman ; New York: Vintage Books, 2009. Reprinted by permission of the publisher.