Optimism is almost a dirty word these days. Global warming, the situation in Iraq, poverty, AIDS and other seemingly unsolvable problems can make us feel a bit blue. To our rescue comes John Brockman, from the Edge World Question Center. This year's poser: What are you optimistic about? "While conventional wisdom tells us that things are bad and getting worse, scientists and the science-minded among us see good news in the coming years." This is the 10th anniversary of the Annual Question; 160 thinkers weighed in. Here is a selection of responses:
Alun Anderson, former editor-in-chief, New Scientist: "I'm optimistic about ... a pair of very big numbers. The first is 4.5 x 10^20. That is the current world annual energy use, measured in joules. It is a truly huge number and not usually a cause for optimism as 70 per cent of that energy comes from burning fossil fuels. Thankfully, the second number is even bigger: 3,000,000 x 10^20 joules. That is the amount of clean, green energy that pours down on the Earth totally free of charge every year."
David Bodanis, author, Passionate Minds: "I'm optimistic because there's a core decency in people that even the worst machinations of governments can't entirely hold down. The Evelina hospital is the first new children's hospital that's been built in London in a century. There's a giant atrium in the middle, and the contract with the company doing the cleaning says that the window cleaners need to dress up as superheroes."
Rodney A. Brooks, director, MIT AI Laboratory: "I am optimistic about many things, especially the future. Just last week I met a number of people from the 22nd century, and they were delightful. We smiled and giggled together a lot but none of them seemed to speak a word of English. Even their Japanese was not so great just yet. But demographic analysis tell us that many of those little girls I saw in Kyoto will end up as citizens of the next century."
Adam Bly, founder and editor-in-chief, Seed: "I am optimistic that science is recapturing the attention and imagination of world leaders."
Jared Diamond, author, Collapse: "I am cautiously optimistic about the state of the world, because big businesses sometimes conclude that what is good for the long-term future of humanity is also good for their bottom line (cf. Wal-Mart's recent decision to shift their seafood purchases entirely to certified sustainable fisheries within the next three to five years)."
Esther Dyson, editor, Release 1.0: "Many of the venture capitalists I know are turning to environmental and energy investments ... They are funding training schools in India – for-profit – rather than just donating to legacy universities ... "
George Dyson, science historian: "I am optimistic about the return of commercial sail. Hybrid sail/electric vessels will proliferate by harvesting energy from the wind. Two near-inexhaustible energy sources – sunlight and the angular momentum of the rotating earth – combine, via the atmosphere, to produce the energy flux we know as wind."
Helen Fisher, Dept. of Anthropology, Rutgers: "I am optimistic about romantic love, because we are returning to patterns of romance that humankind enjoyed across most of our deep history: choosing lovers and spouses for ourselves."
Alison Gopnik, psychologist, UC-Berkeley: "New children will be born. This may seem rather mundane compared to some of the technological breakthroughs that other scientists have focused on. ... But for human beings children are linked to optimism in a way that runs deeper than just the biological continuation of the species."
Haim Harari, physicist: "I am optimistic about the evolutionary ability of humankind to do the right things, even though it sometimes happens only after all possible mistakes are exhausted."
Steven Pinker, psychologist, Harvard: "In 16th century Paris, a popular form of entertainment was cat-burning, in which a cat was hoisted on a stage and was slowly lowered into a fire. ... As horrific as present-day events are, such sadism would be unthinkable today in most of the world."