The World Question Center at www.edge.org every year asks scientists, doctors, philosophers and educators a question.
The question for 2006 was "What is your dangerous idea?"
Princeton University professor of astrophysics Piet Hut posted this idea:"In everyday experience, time flows, and we flow with it. In classical physics, time is frozen as part of a frozen spacetime picture. And there is, as yet, no agreed-upon interpretation of time in quantum mechanics."
What if a future scientific understanding of time would show all previous pictures to be wrong, and demonstrate that past and future and even the present do not exist? That stories woven around our individual personal history and future are all just wrong? Now that would be a dangerous idea.
"We hope we've reassured you, dear reader, that those crow's feet do not really exist. They are just an illusion.
Still, here on Earth, we like to celebrate the passage of time. Like we did last night. That's why our head hurts this morning and we don't have much of an appetite.
Each year, John Brockman's EDGE asks a single question for the new year, and publishes the responses online. For 2007: ...
Respondents include many whose work has appeared on Boing Boing before, including: J. Craig Venter, Sherry Turkle, Danny Hillis, Jaron Lanier, Rodney Brooks, David Gelernter, Kevin Kelly, Freeman Dyson, George Dyson, Rudy Rucker, Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi, Clay Shirky, Ray Kurzweil, and Clifford Pickover.
Link to index.
Several of us from BoingBoing participated: here's Cory's response ("Copying Is What Bits Are For"), here's Pesco's ("We're Recognizing That the World Is a Wunderkammer"), here's mine (" Truth Prevails. Sometimes, Technology Helps.").
Scientists often find themselves accused of pessimism. From the gravity of their public warnings about the dangers of climate change or bird flu, they have earned a reputation as Jeremiahs with a bleak view of human nature and humanity’s future.
It is a charge most researchers contest vigorously: science, they say, is a profoundly optimistic pursuit. The idea that the world can be understood by gathering evidence, to the ultimate benefit of its citizens, lies at its heart. It is not just about problems, but about finding the solutions.
The breadth of this optimism is revealed today by the discussion website Edge.org — often likened to an online scientific “salon” — which marks every new year by inviting dozens of the world’s best scientific minds to answer a single question. For 2007, it is: “What are you optimistic about?” The answers show that even in the face of such threats as global warming and religious fundamentalism, scientists remain positive about the future.
Psychologist, Harvard University, author of The Blank Slate
In 16th-century Paris, a popular form of entertainment was cat-burning, in which a cat hoisted on a stage was slowly lowered into a fire.
As horrific as present-day events are, such sadism would be unthinkable today in most of the world. This is just one example of the most important and under appreciated trend in the history of our species: the decline of violence.
My optimism lies in the hope that the decline of force over the centuries is a real phenomenon, that it is the product of systematic forces that will continue to operate, and that we can identify those forces and perhaps concentrate and bottle them.
Director of the Autism Research Centre, University of Cambridge
I remain optimistic that for a good proportion of them [people with autism], it has never been a better time to have autism. Why? Because there is a remarkably good fit between the autistic mind and the digital age.For this new generation of children with autism, I anticipate that many of them will find ways to blossom, using their skills with digital technology to find employment, to find friends, and in some cases to innovate.
Professor of Philosophy, Tufts University, author of Breaking the Spell
I expect to live to see the evaporation of the powerful mystique of religion. I think that in about 25 years almost all religions will have evolved into very different phenomena . . . With the worldwide spread of information technology (not just the internet, but cell phones and portable radios and television), it is no longer feasible for guardians of religious traditions to protect their young from exposure to the kinds of facts (and, yes, of course, misinformation and junk of every genre) that gently, irresistibly undermine the mindsets requisite for religious fanaticism and intolerance. The religious fervour of today is a last, desperate attempt by our generation to block the eyes and ears of the coming generations, and it isn’t working.
Biologist and geographer, UCLA, and author of Guns, Germs and Steel and Collapse
I am cautiously optimistic about the state of the world, because: 1. 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). 2. Voters in democracy sometimes make good choices and avoid bad choices (cf some recent elections in a major First World country).
NEW YORK The Edge of Computation Science Prize endowed with a hundred housand dollars goes at David Deutsch, the pioneer of quantum computer research. The honor is aimed at scientists, who advance the "computatrional idea" in the past ten years with their work. Deutsch, born in Israel and trained in Oxford and Cambridge, is credited with the development of a set of algorithms on which the theoretical conditions for a recent revolution in computation are based. The Edge Prize, named after the virtual Internet salon Edge, in which an international avant-garde of researchers and philosophers meet, was organized by John Brockman, the New York Guru of the third culture.
The Prize was initiated by the investor Jeffrey Epstein, an inspired promoter of science, who also donated the Prize money. Among the other nominees were researchers such as Tim Berners Lee, Noam Chomsky, David Gelernter, Larry Smarr and J. Craig Venter.
A New Take on Atheism: Armed with evolutionary psychology and inflamed by the 9/11 attacks, these authors--Richard Dawkins, left, Sam Harris, center, and Daniel C. Dennett--treat belief in God as a superstition the modern world can no longer afford
...On the science Web site Edge.org, the astronomer Carolyn Porco offers the subversive suggestion that science itself should attempt to supplant God in Western culture, by providing the benefits and comforts people find in religion: community, ceremony and a sense of awe. "Imagine congregations raising their voices in tribute to gravity, the force that binds us all to the Earth, and the Earth to the Sun, and the Sun to the Milky Way," she writes. Porco, who is deeply involved in the Cassini mission to Saturn, finds spiritual fulfillment in exploring the cosmos. But will that work for the rest of the world—for "the people who want to know that they're going to live forever and meet Mom and Dad in heaven? We can't offer that." If Dawkins, Dennett and Harris are right, the five-century-long competition between science and religion is sharpening. People are choosing sides. And when that happens, people get hurt.
Karl Marx famously predicted that industrial capitalism’s individualist ethos would engender its opposite: a new collective consciousness that would ultimately fuel the socialist revolution. But the old dialectician would probably have been shocked to see how much collectivism has flowered in the hypercapitalist Internet economy of late. First there was open-source software — large-scale digital engineering projects miraculously executed by groups of programmers contributing their intellectual labor for the sheer reward of participation. Then Google took on the seemingly insurmountable problem of organizing the Web’s information by tapping the collective wisdom embedded in the links between Web sites. Then Wikipedia applied the open-source model to encyclopedia production, and — against all odds — built a genuine challenger to Britannica in four short years.
But all the hype over the powers of the so-called hive mind was bound to provoke a reaction, and in May of this year, it arrived in the form of a thoughtful — though controversial — essay by the artist and computer scientist Jaron Lanier. “What we are witnessing today,” Lanier wrote on Edge.org, “is the alarming rise of the fallacy of the infallible collective. Numerous elite organizations have been swept off their feet by the idea. They are inspired by the rise of the Wikipedia, by the wealth of Google and by the rush of entrepreneurs to be the most Meta. Government agencies, top corporate planning departments and major universities have all gotten the bug.” Lanier dubbed this newthink “digital Maoism.” Against this collectivist mythos, Lanier tried to carve out a crucial space for the insight and creativity of the individual mind.
Unlike most counterrevolutionary manifestoes, however, Lanier’s essay aimed not so much to topple the dominant regime as to limit its application. “There are certain types of answers that ought not be provided by an individual,” he wrote. “When a government bureaucrat sets a price, for instance, the result is often inferior to the answer that would come from a reasonably informed collective. . . . But when a collective designs a product, you get design by committee, which is a derogatory expression for a reason.”
In the essay, Lanier grouped everything from his personal Wikipedia entry to “American Idol” under the umbrella of digital Maoism, and many of the responses to the article by assorted Internet luminaries observed that Lanier had elided important differences between these systems to make his point. The entirety of Wikipedia, for instance, is most certainly a collective undertaking, but many articles are written and edited by small numbers of individuals. Wikipedia may be not too far from the historical reality of Maoism itself: a system propagandized with the language of collectivism that was, in practice, actually run by a small power elite.
In any case, culture and technology are increasingly reliant on the hive mind — and whatever its faults, Lanier’s broadside helps us consider the consequences of this momentous development. A swarm of connected human minds is a fantastic resource for tracking down software bugs or discovering obscure gems on the Web. But if you want to come up with a good idea, or a sophisticated argument, or a work of art, you’re still better off going solo.
The great Danish physicist Niels Bohr, it is said, had a good-luck horseshoe hanging in his office. "You don't believe in that nonsense, do you?" a visitor once asked, to which Bohr replied, "No, but they say it works whether you believe in it or not."
If one thing emerged from the "Beyond Belief" conference at the Salk Institute in LaJolla, Calif. it's that religion doesn't work the same way. Some 30 scientists—one of the greatest collections of religious skeptics ever assembled in one place since Voltaire dined alone—examined faith from the evolutionary, neurological and philosophical points of view, and they concluded that some things only work if you do believe in them. Richard Dawkins, the British evolutionary biologist and author of the best-selling book "The God Delusion," said he couldn't have a spiritual experience even when he tried. After another panelist, neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran of the University of California, San Diego, explained that temporal-lobe seizures of the brain create profound spiritual and out-of-body experiences, Dawkins disclosed that he had participated in an experiment that was supposed to mimic such seizures—and even then he didn't feel a thing.
Dawkins obviously feels this loss is a small price to pay for freedom from superstition. But even physicist Steven Weinberg, a Nobel laureate and an outspoken atheist, acknowledged that science is a poor substitute for the role religion plays in most peoples' lives. It's hard, he said, to live in a world in which one's highest emotions can be understood in biochemical and evolutionary terms, rather than a gift from God. Instead of the big, comforting certainties promoted by religion, science can offer only "a lot of little truths" and the austere pleasures of intellectual honesty. Much as Weinberg would like to see civilization emerge from the tyranny of religion, when it happens, "I think we will miss it, like a crazy old aunt who tells lies and causes us all kinds of trouble, but was beautiful once and was with us a long time."
To which Dawkins retorted, "I won't miss her at all." Only in the most extreme circumstances would he deign to take account of the consolations offered by religion. He would not, for instance, try to talk a Christian on his deathbed out of a belief in Heaven. He didn't say what he would do if he were the one near death, but it's unlikely he would be calling for a priest. The atheist philosopher Daniel Dennett had been expected to attend, but two weeks earlier had been rushed to the hospital with a near-fatal aortic rupture. At the conference, people handed around copies of Dennett's essay entitled "Thank Goodness," posted on the science Web site Edge.org, in which he described how annoying it was to hear from friends that they had been praying for his recovery. "I have resisted the temptation," he wrote, "to respond, 'Thanks, I appreciate it, but did you also sacrifice a goat?'"
To Lanier, the 'wisdom of crowds' delivers a reflection of the lowest common denominator.
By Steven Levy
Jaron Lanier is a man of many talents—virtual-reality pioneer, New Age composer, visual artist and artificial-intelligence scientist. Now Lanier has taken on another role: dyspeptic critic of the surging trend of digital collectivism, an ethic that celebrates and exploits the ability of the Web to aggregate the preferences and behaviors of millions of people. In a recent essay posted on the Web site Edge.org, Lanier disparages the recent spate of efforts that rely on conscious collaboration (like the anyone-can-participate online reference work Wikipedia) or passive polling (the so-called meta sites like Digg, which draw on user response to rank news articles and blog postings). To Lanier, these represent an alarming decision—rejecting individual expression and creativity to become part of a faceless mob. To emphasize the enormity of this movement, Lanier titled his essay with a fearsome moniker: "Digital Maoism." ...
...Neil H. Shubin, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Chicago, writes of the way living things emerged from the seas and describes the recently discovered fossil specimen of that first terrestrial explorer. Paleontologist Tim D. White of the University of California, Berkeley, lays out the forensic evidence of pre-human descent. Nicholas Humphrey, a professor at the Center for Philosophy of Natural and Social Science at the London School of Economics, muses on how natural selection might have produced human consciousness. Steven Pinker, the Harvard University cognitive neuroscientist, holds forth on the evolution of ethics. Harvard evolutionary psychologist Marc D. Hauser discusses the proper role of evolution in the science curriculum.
Several essayists worry that the passions stirred by the intelligent design debate go well beyond the natural tension between science and religion. They suspect that baser political motives are at work in a strategy crafted to discredit science itself as an independent auditor of political claims about global warming, stem-cell research, pollution and high-tech military systems. ...
In the book's universe, however, Albert Einstein, thinker extraordinaire, still lives. As, indeed, these essays prove he does.
The reader is transported to a space-time continuum much like our own in "My Einstein: Essays by Twenty-Four of the World's Leading Thinkers on the Man, His Work, and His Legacy," edited by John Brockman Pantheon, $25,In the book's universe, however, Albert Einstein, thinker extraordinaire, still lives. As, indeed, these essays prove he does.These essays prove why, as editor John Brockman writes, "Einstein was clearly the most important person of the 20th century."
...More recently I found "Intelligent Thought: Science Versus the Intelligent Design Movement," fascinating brief essays by leading evolutionists and edited by John Brockman.
... Each side of the evolution versus intelligent design debate has tended to draw me similarly, yet there is a winner. I am persuaded that the evolutionists have far the better case. In an essay titled"Unintelligent Design," Scott Atran, in the last volume noted above, points out that "no scientific theory can ever be proved true, but states that "scientific theories are validated when their surprising predictions are confirmed ..." ... (Grael Gannon, of Bismarck, is a teacher at Shiloh Christian School.)
The kind of hard-right thinking found in conservative pundit Ann Coulter's book "Godless: The Church of Liberalism" amazes Bammel, he said. "It drives me up the wall. Evidence is being produced almost day by day in favor of evolution. That to me says it's factual, the way thing happened. How anyone can come along and deny it, it just numbs my mind."
The talk Bammel will give Monday is a distillation of material he used in a course he taught at West Virginia University about the conflicts between science and religion. It will be followed by a question-and-answer session. He said he doesn't necessarily expect to change minds, but he does want to present some facts.
"There's a lot of intelligent people in the Vail Valley, really well-read people," he said. "There are so many good books put out on this topic in the past 10 years, and part of my purpose is to just people to get back to these and examine the evidence out there."
Two books Bammel recommends are "Intelligent Thought: Science Versus the Intelligent Design Movement" edited by John Brockman and "By Design: Science and the Search for God" by Larry Witham.
Free registration required [...continue]
If you are interested in education, and what draws different people to different disciplines, you may want to read Curious Minds: How a child becomes a scientist. Edited by John Brockman, this is a collection of reminiscences by prominent scientists of how they came to science through experiences during childhood. It’s amazing what triggers an interest in science. It could be a family friend with an interest in both science and children, the impetus from imagination stirred by a childhood novel, the special interest of a teacher, or a child’s cleaning job in a butcher shop.
My Einstein is a gem of a book that celebrates not only Einstein the scientist but also Einstein the man, even though it is a collection of essays written by scientific figures ... The result is a remarkably well-rounded figure.
If you want to learn more about how Intelligent Design relates to science, get the small 2006 paperback book, “Intelligent Thought: Science versus the Intelligent Design Movement,” edited by John Brockman ...
...And the key to our preeminence is education. The study of evolution has practical benefits: It is the basis for breeding food crops, choosing animal models that can be used to treat human disorders, conserving species and their habitats, predicting which vaccines should be made to prepare for epidemics like avian flu and manufacturing those vaccines.
Science education that incorporates unscientific issues like ID is a sure path to America’s failure against competing countries. Conversely, given its importance for biology and for science in general, evolution deserves to be properly taught in American classrooms.
John Brockman, escritor, editor y animador cultural de la élite científica, ha formulado a un centenar de investigadores la pregunta: "¿En qué cree usted aunque no pueda probarlo?". Las respuestas ya están colgadas en su revista electrónica Edge(www.edge.org), y tienen un morbo indudable: son justo las ideas que los científicos no pueden confesar en sus publicaciones técnicas.
Martin Rees: "La vida inteligente es exclusiva de la Tierra, pero se extenderá por toda la galaxia"
Lynn Margulis: "Todos los sentidos humanos proceden de una bacteria llamada espiroqueta"
Craig Venter: "La vida en nuestro planeta ha evolucionado a partir de microbios llegados del espacio"
Desde el Big Bang, la materia se ha ido organizando en partículas, átomos, estrellas, planetas, moléculas orgánicas y (al menos en la Tierra) bacterias, animales y cerebros conscientes. Eso es lo que los científicos consideran probado. Pero sus creencias no probadas cuentan otra historia, o muchas otras.
"Dudo que el Big Bang sea el principio del tiempo; tengo la fuerte sospecha de que nuestra historia se extiende mucho más atrás", escribe en Edge el físico teórico Lee Smolin. No puede probarlo, pero lo cree. Como cree su colega Lawrence Krauss, también sin pruebas, que "hay un número enorme, tal vez infinito de universos, y algunos pueden estar experimentando Big Bangs en este momento".
Einstein dijo que "Dios no juega a los dados", pero Alexander Vilenkin cree que jugaba demasiado: "Hay buenas razones para pensar que el universo es infinito, luego ha de haber infinitas regiones con historias idénticas a la nuestra". Gregory Benford prefiere creer en una gran cadena ontológica: "Si los seres vivos pueden crear nuevos universos con mejores leyes, nosotros somos una consecuencia inevitable del universo, un eco de inteligencias anteriores que eligieron deliberadamente crear un orden más sostenible".
He aquí lo que cree Craig Venter, el ex contendiente privado en la carrera del genoma: "La vida en la Tierra es con toda probabilidad el resultado de un suceso panespérmico". En la jerga, eso quiere decir que no surgió aquí, sino que llegó del espacio exterior. Venter ha estado últimamente secuenciando los genes de miles de organismos desconocidos y ha concluido que "un número finito de temas se usan una y otra vez y podrían fácilmente haber evolucionado a partir de unos pocos microbios llegados en un meteorito o en el polvo galáctico".
El físico Paul Davies también cree que la vida bulle en el universo, aunque por razones más bien místicas: "La vida es capaz de conectarse con los mecanismos básicos del cosmos, de resonar con el orden matemático oculto que lo hace funcionar".
Pero, si el universo existe para que haya matemáticos que lo entiendan, ¿quién garantiza que la evolución produzca matemáticos? La bióloga Lynn Margulis aporta una idea: que todos los sentidos humanos provienen de una bacteria llamada espiroqueta. Es la parte de su teoría simbiótica de la evolución que (todavía) no ha podido demostrar.
El lingüista John McWhorter ha hallado en una isla de Indonesia los dos lenguajes más simples del mundo, el Keo y el Ngada. Carecen de prefijos, sufijos, tonos y otras complicaciones. La isla se llama Flores. Hace unos meses, cuando McWhorter leyó sobre el diminuto Homo floresiensis, no pudo evitar que le asaltara una creencia: que los humanos de la isla habían simplificado su lenguaje para entenderse con los hobbits. No ha podido probarlo, pero lo cree.
"Creo que la vida inteligente es exclusiva de la Tierra, pero que tiene el potencial de extenderse por toda la galaxia", afirma el cosmólogo Martin Rees. "La idea es un sustituto de la religión, y espero que sea cierta".
¿Significa lo mismo el verbo creer para científicos y creyentes? Este diario le planteó la pregunta a Brockman, y él se la rebotó a cinco estrellas de su elenco. He aquí sus respuestas.
"No", responde el filósofo Daniel Dennett, de la Universidad de Tufts. "Los científicos pueden apoyarse en fórmulas que no comprenden si se convencen de que otros expertos las comprenden. Los creyentes se proclaman incapaces de comprender aquello que creen".
"Los científicos comparten la creencia de Einstein de que 'la naturaleza es sutil pero no maliciosa', y de que podemos usar nuestro poder de razonamiento para descubrir pautas y leyes en el mundo", añade Martin Rees, el Astrónomo Real del Reino Unido. "Pero algunos añaden creencias más peculiares, por ejemplo que las leyes naturales han sido diseñadas por un Creador, o que no podemos comprender la consciencia".
"Yo diría que, en general, el científico dice creo que en el sentido de pienso que, y no en el sentido de tengo fe en", puntualiza el gran evolucionista Robert Trivers, de la Universidad de Rutgers.
Y, curiosamente, dos de los más brillantes psicólogos del mundo discrepan entre sí:
"De ningún modo significa lo mismo", dice Steven Pinker, de Harvard. "En el lenguaje ordinario creer puede significar 'albergar un pensamiento' o 'tener fe en algo'. La primera acepción se usa en vez de saber cuando el hablante tiene dudas".
"No es tan diferente", opina Nicholas Humphrey, de la London School of Economics. "Decir creo es admitir que los fundamentos de la creencia son emocionales además de racionales, que la creencia suena bien estética, moral e incluso espiritualmente. Pero la gran diferencia es que el científico la ve como un desafío para seguir adelante, y el religioso como una señal de que ya ha llegado".
But could anybody who absorbed the Sermon on the Mount write, as she does of Richard Dawkins, "I defy any of my coreligionists to tell me they do not laugh at the idea of Dawkins burning in hell"? Well, I wouldn't want Coulter to roast (there's not much meat there anyway), but I wish she'd shut up and learn something about evolution. Her case for ID involves the same stupid arguments that fundamentalists have made for a hundred years. They're about as convincing as the blonde hair that gets her so much attention. By their roots shall ye know them.
A century and a half ago, Charles Darwin sparked a scientific revolution. Now that revolution has become a culture war. But does the concept of "intelligent design" have validity as an alternative to evolution? Three new books look beyond the rhetoric.
By Robert Lee Hotz
"A teaching moment that encompasses all the ages of the Earth."
Science Versus the Intelligent Design Movement
Edited by John Brockman
...Indeed, the effort to inject intelligent design into science classrooms is an attempt to narrow the common ground of a secular society, writes science publishing impresario John Brockman, who commissioned a collection of essays called Intelligent Thought: Science Versus the Intelligent Design Movement. "[R]eligious fundamentalism is on the rise around the world, and our own virulent domestic version of it, under the rubric of 'intelligent design,' by elbowing its way into the classroom abrogates the divide between church and state that has served this country so well for so long."
In Intelligent Thought, Brockman persuaded 16 distinguished scientists to address the controversy from the pulpit of their technical expertise. The assembled are knowledgeable, humane and deeply passionate about science as a way of knowing the world around us. The result is a teaching moment that encompasses all the ages of the Earth ...
Why Darwin Matters
The Case Against Intelligent Design
...None writes so fiercely in defense of evolution as Shermer, a Scientific American columnist and founder and director of the Skeptics Society. With the sustained indignation of a former creationist, Shermer is savage about the shortcomings of intelligent design and eloquent about the spirituality of science. In "Why Darwin Matters," he has assembled an invaluable primer for anyone caught up in an argument with a well-intentioned intelligent design advocate. ...