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From particle physics to evolutionary theory, to the atomic bomb, to global warming, to the battle of the sexes, to the equality of human beings, to God and the paranormal, and to the dogmatism of scientists themselves, dozens of the big thinkers in the world explained online, at the start of 2008, what the most important things that they’ve change their minds about during their lives are.
The project takes place on the website www.edge.org, a kind of informal think tank, a forum for ideas and scientific debates (see adjoining article), which asks such questions annually online and later publishes the result in book form.
Many of the names here are well known to the interested public—the physicist Freeman Dyson, the "genome decoder" Craig Venter, the biologist Richard Dawkins (author of the controversial book The God Delusion), the Nobel laureate physicist Leon Lederman. Other participants, such as actor Alan Alda or the musician Brian Eno, may be surprising departures, but are just as interesting. And there are a number of science journalists, as well, including Steve Connor of the Independent, Roger Highfield of the Telegraph, and Philip Campbell, editor of Nature. The following are some examples of the ideas that they are re-evaluating.
Freeman Dyson, renowned physicist and mathematician, Princeton's Institute of Advanced Study
my mind about an important historical question: did the nuclear bombings
of Hiroshima and Nagasaki bring World War Two to an end? Until this
year I used to say, perhaps. Now, because of new facts, I say no.
Steven Pinker, experimental psychologist, Harvard University
ago I wrote, "Are we still evolving? Biologically, probably not
much." The completion of the Human Genome Project was several
years away. But new results have suggested that thousands of genes,
perhaps as much as ten percent of the human genome, have been under
strong recent selection, and the selection may even have accelerated
during the past several thousand years. Currently, evolutionary psychology
assumes that any adaptation to post-agricultural ways of life are 100%
cultural. If these results hold up, and apply to psychologically relevant
brain function, then that simplifying assumption might have to be reconsidered.
When I was
a student at Oxford in 1970, I became became fascinated with occultism,
mediumship and the paranormal. I did the experiments. I tested telepathy,
precognition, and clairvoyance; I got only chance results. I trained
fellow students in imagery techniques and tested them again; chance
results. I tested twins in pairs; chance results. I worked in play
groups and nursery schools with very young children (their naturally
telepathic minds are not yet warped by education, you see); chance
results. I trained as a Tarot reader and tested the readings; chance
results. I was lying in the bath trying to fit my latest null results
into paranormal theory, when it occurred to me for the very first time
that I might have been completely wrong, and my tutors right. Perhaps
there were no paranormal phenomena at all. I had hunted ghosts and
poltergeists, trained as a witch, attended spiritualist churches, and
stared into crystal balls. But all of that had to go. Once the
decision was made it was actually quite easy.
When I was
young I believed in equality as a guiding principle in life. My mind
has been changed. I still believe in some aspects of the idea of equality,
but I can no longer accept the whole package. Striving to give people
equality of social opportunity is still a value system worth defending,
but we have to accept that equality has no place in the realm of biology.
Leon Lederman, Nobel Laureate in Physics (author of The God Particle)
I have always
believed that the scientist’s most sacred obligation is to continue
to do science. Now I know that I was dead wrong. I am driven to the
ultimately wise advice of my Columbia mentor, I.I. Rabi, who, in our
many corridor bull sessions, urged his students to run for public office
and get elected. He insisted that to be an advisor (he was an advisor
to Oppenheimer at Los Alamos, later to Eisenhower and to the AEC) was
ultimately an exercise in futility and that the power belonged to those
who are elected. Then, we thought the old man was bonkers. But today...
A Congress which is overwhelmingly dominated by lawyers and MBAs makes
no sense in this 21st century in which almost all issues have a science
and technology aspect.
Helena Cronin, philosopher, London School of Economics
I used to
think that these patterns of sex differences resulted mainly from average
differences between men and women in innate talents, tastes and temperaments.
After all, in talents men are on average more mathematical, more technically
minded, women more verbal; in tastes, men are more interested in things,
women in people; in temperaments, men are more competitive, risk-taking,
single-minded, status-conscious, women far less so. But I have now
changed my mind. It is not a matter of averages, but of extremes. Females
are much of a muchness, clustering round the mean. But, among males,
the variance—the difference between the most and the least,
the best and the worst—can be vast. So males are almost bound
to be over-represented both at the bottom and at the top. I think of
this as 'more dumbbells but more Nobels'.
Marcelo Gleiser, Brazilian physicist and astronomer, Dartmouth College
I was always
fascinated by the idea of unification of the forces of nature. I wrote
dozens of papers related to the subject of unification, even my Ph.D.
dissertation was on the topic. I was fascinated by the modern approaches
to the idea, supersymmetry, superstrings, a space with extra, hidden
dimensions. A part of me still is. But then, a few years ago, I started
to doubt unification, finding it to be the scientific equivalent of
a monotheistic formulation of reality, a search for God revealed in
equations. Of course, had we the slightest experimental evidence in
favor of unification, of supersymmetry and superstrings, I'd be the
first popping the champagne open. But it's been over twenty years,
and all attempts so far have failed.
Craig Venter, human genome decoder, J. Craig Venter Institute
or perhaps most I wanted to believe that our oceans and atmosphere
were basically unlimited sinks with an endless capacity to absorb the
waste products of human existence. I wanted to believe that solving
the carbon fuel problem was for future generations and that the big
concern was the limited supply of oil not the rate of adding carbon
to the atmosphere. The data is irrefutable. We are conducting a dangerous
experiment with our planet. One we need to stop. Now.
Richard Wrangham, British anthropologist, student of Jane Goodall, Harvard University
I used to
think that human origins were explained by meat-eating. But I now think
that cooking was the major advance that made us human. Cooked food
allows our guts, teeth and mouths to be small, while giving us abundant
food energy and freeing our time. Cooked food, of course, requires
the control of fire; and a fire at night explains how Homo erectus
dared sleep on the ground. So, in a roast potato and a hunk of
beef we have a new theory of what made us human.
Mark Pagel, evolutionary biologist, Reading University
There is an overbearing censorship to the way we are allowed to think and talk about the diversity of people on Earth. Officially we are all the same: there are no races. Flawed as the old ideas about race are, modern genomic studies reveal a surprising, compelling and different picture of human genetic diversity. What this all means is that, like it or not, there may be many genetic differences among human populations—including differences that may even correspond to old categories of 'race'—that are real differences in the sense of making one group better than another at responding to some particular environmental problem. This in no way says one group is in general 'superior' to another, or that one group should be preferred over another. But it warns us that we must be prepared to discuss genetic differences among human populations.
Brockman intersects the cultures
Edge is a bimonthly newsletter and a website. It is a single publication, run by North American John Brockman, a literary agent with a constellation of world-famous scientists (most, but not all, are from the Anglo-Saxon world). Brockman, born in Boston in 1941, now resides in New York. He is the author and editor of 19 books, including The Third Culture: Beyond the Scientific Revolution.
Brockman writes in his presentation of the site that the "traditional intellectual", i.e. one with a 1950s education "in Freud, Marx, and modernism" no longer has sufficient qualifications to be a thinking person in the world today. One cannot be just a "literary intellectual"—that self-defined term used in the 1930s by "men of letters" to the exclusion of scientists such as Einstein, Bohr, and Heisenberg. "The traditional American intellectuals are, in a sense, increasingly reactionary, and quite often proudly (and perversely) ignorant of many of the truly significant intellectual accomplishments of our time", he says.
"The third culture" is defined by Brockman as consisting of "those scientists and other thinkers in the empirical world who, through their work and expository writing, are taking the place of the traditional intellectual in rendering visible the deeper meanings of our lives, redefining who and what we are." The mandate of the Edge Foundation is "to promote inquiry into and discussion of intellectual, philosophical, artistic, and literary issues, as well as to work for the intellectual and social achievement of society."
The online world of Edge clearly benefits from a suspension of the fear of not being politically correct or addressing issues that are not the specialty of the participant. All the invited participants play the game, presenting controversial ideas, confessing doubts, casting proposals for the future. "There is no canon of acceptable ideas" notes Brockman. "The strength of the Third Culture is precisely that it can tolerate those disagreements." The result of this ambitious venture, for those who have already experienced navigating the web pages of edge.org, is not only brilliant, but addictive. It interprets, it interrogates, it provokes. Each text can be a world in itself.
Although little known to the greater European public—just looking at the list of periodical articles referenced on the website’s press page is enough to see that Edge has become an indispensable point of passage essential for all—specialists and fans—who like to perceive and reflect on the great scientific, social, cultural, and policy questions that are shaped by the arguments of these "new intellectuals", who work and think "at the edge of the world's knowledge" (Brockman's words, of course). Ana Gerschenfeld