Edge in the News: 2007

CORDIS NEWS [1.1.07]

Even in the face of such threats as climate change and avian flu, scientists remain optimistic about the future, as illustrated by responses to the question 'What are you optimistic about?

Every year the discussion website Edge.org asks some of the world's best scientists to answer a single question. This year's question has revealed a high degree of optimism in areas ranging from power by sunlight and transparency to hearing aid functionality, the coalescence of scientific disciplines and the alleviation of poverty. Some 160 scientists have contributed to the discussion.

Carlo Rovelli, a physicist at the Mediterranean University in Marseilles, France, believes that 'the divide between rational scientific thinking and the rest of our culture is decreasing'. 'In the small world of the academia, the senseless divide between science and the humanities is slowly evaporating. Intellectuals on both sides realize that the complexity of contemporary knowledge cannot be seen unless we look at it all,' he writes.

According to Chris Dibona, Open Source Programs Manager, Google Inc, 'Widely available, constantly renewing, high resolution images of the Earth will end conflict and ecological devastation as we know it.'

Ernst Pöppel, a neuroscientist at Munich University, is optimistic about fighting 'monocausalitis', the tendency to search for one single explanation for a phenomenon or event. 'Biological phenomena can better be understood, if multicausality is accepted as a guiding principle,' he writes.

An eagerly-awaited collider carries Maria Spiropulu's hopes for 2007. Dr Spiropulu is a physicist at CERN. 'Being built under the Jura on the border of Switzerland and France the Large Hadron Collider is a serious reason of optimism for experimental science. It is the first time that the human exploration and technology will offer reproducible 'hand-made' 14 TeV collisions of protons with protons. The physics of such interactions, the analysis of the data from the debris of these collisions [the highest energy such] are to be seen in the coming year,' she writes.

Colin Blakemore, Chief Executive of the UK's Medical Research Council and Professor of Physiology at the University of Oxford finds cause for optimism in two of the 'big' science issues of 2006: climate change and stem cells.

'For climate change, the obstacles are short-sighted commercial interests and short-term political interests,' writes Professor Blakemore. He believes that the 'tipping point' will come in 2007, when the realities of climate change become even more evident, and can no longer be ignored. 'Political sceptics will become passionate converts, eager to claim the historical credit for recognising the inevitable. The burners will become preservers,' he believes.

For stem cells, the barriers to progress are moral rather than economic. 'Although the balance of arguments seems quite different from that for climate change, interestingly, the crux of the problem is again the power of intuition over the cold rationality of science,' writes Professor Blakemore.

His reason for optimism is the following: 'Yesterday's moral outrage has a way of becoming today's necessary evil and tomorrow's common good. Just as with climate change, what will cause a swing of attitude is the turning point of a mathematical function; in this case the ratio of perceived benefit to theoretical cost.'