Edge in the News

The Boston Globe [3.18.06]

What We Believe But Cannot Prove: Today’s Leading Thinkers on Science in the Age of Certainty
Edited by John Brockman
Harper Perennial, 252 pp., paperback, $13.95

Chasing Spring: An American Journey Through a Changing Season
By Bruce Stutz
Scribner, 239 pp., $24

Pilgrim on the Great Bird Continent: The Importance of Everything and Other Lessons From Darwin’s Lost Notebooks
By Lyanda Lynn Haupt
Little, Brown, 276 pp., illustrated, $24.95

For the past eight years, the website www.edge.org has tried to provoke its distinguished roster of contributors with a big, elegant question. Last year's question was this: What do you believe to be true even though you cannot prove it?

A hundred and nine prominent thinkers, including folks as accomplished as Richard Dawkins, Steven Pinker, Rebecca Goldstein, and Freeman Dyson, responded. Their answers are collected in a new book, ''What We Believe But Cannot Prove," and it makes for some astounding reading.

What do they believe (but can't prove)? Many believe there is an external reality independent of consciousness. Many believe life is pervasive in the universe. Several believe, in the words of neurologist Robert M. Sapolsky, that ''there is no God(s) or such a thing as a soul." Theoretician Judith Rich Harris believes the Neanderthals disappeared because Homo sapiens ate them. Two believe there is a God. One believes in true love. The longtime New Scientist editor Alun Anderson believes cockroaches are conscious. Harvard professor Daniel Gilbert believes you are true -- that is, he believes you have an inner life and a sense of self -- even though he cannot prove it.

Taken as a whole, this little compendium of essays will send you careening from mathematics to economics to the moral progress of the human race, and it is marvelous to watch this muddle of disciplines overlap. Will the human brain eventually be able to discover all there is to discover about the physical world? Or will there always be things that we will not know?

A few months before edge.org proposed its 2005 question, former Natural History editor Bruce Stutz was recovering from heart-valve surgery in the torpid gloom of a Brooklyn winter. Dazed, drained of energy, and feeling suddenly that his ''most verdant years" were behind him, Stutz began yearning for spring.

He yearned not just for the material manifestations of the season, but for its sparkle, the ''transformative energy possessed by growing, blossoming, transmuting things." By the end of June he traveled almost 10,000 miles in a 1984 Chevy Impala, watching spring creep northward across the United States, seeing everything he could, and writing it all down.

Part travelogue, part environmental assessment, part midlife crisis, ''Chasing Spring" is as much about Stutz himself as it is about the season. He slogs from Louisiana to Arizona to Utah to Alaska, chatting with scientists, watching birds, testing his heart on mountain passes and in the tundra of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. By the end of his odyssey, the spring of Arctic Alaska and the spring of Stutz's own soul have become inseparable.

''Chasing Spring" is an eclectic and digressive book. Its author makes the baffling claim that 18,000-foot peaks rise from the deserts of Arizona. He is effusive enough to offer abbreviated ruminations on the Great Salt Lake, the Roman festival of Lupercalia, and the picking of morel mushrooms.

But the charm of ''Chasing Spring" is in its raw enthusiasm, Stutz's personal invigoration braided into the ongoing invigoration of the continent. ''Bring on that juice and joy!" he writes. ''I'm ready now for the spring forest in its mist, spring it its musk, in its spring greens: canopy green, shafts of wild iris green." Reading Stutz is a bit like reading Whitman: You imagine the author stomping gleefully in puddles, peering on his hands and knees into the forget-me-nots and saxifrage.

Spring, of course, means someone is publishing another book about Darwin. Thankfully, this year it's an excellent one. Lyanda Lynn Haupt's ''Pilgrim on the Great Bird Continent" probes Darwin's journals, pocket notebooks, and letters with the goal of understanding how a beetle-obsessed, squeamish, overprivileged 22-year-old could spend five years circumnavigating South America and emerge as a polished naturalist whose vision would change human understanding forever.

Even more than ''Chasing Spring," ''Pilgrim" is about what Haupt calls ''deep watchfulness." She argues that Darwin's notebooks ''foist upon us his strict but beautiful maxim. Nothing in the natural world is beneath our notice -- he almost whacks us on the head with it. Nothing."

Here is a young, apprehensive, occasionally self-absorbed Darwin who gradually strips away his vanities to find an intensity of observation that borders on the religious. He swims with iguanas; he waits four hours on his knees in the mud to glimpse a sedge wren. He stands perfectly motionless in a forest until a shy bird will, in his words, finally ''approach within a few feet, in the most familiar manner." He lies on his back for an entire hour simply to watch the slow circling of condors. Ultimately Haupt's portrait is of a devastatingly sensitive man who teaches himself to approach the world with a profound humility.

Watch what's going on around you, forget being hungry or wet, and bring all your intelligence to being present. If any time of the year is about throwing open your windows and letting the energy of the world pour over you, it has to be springtime.

Perhaps Darwin's own son said it best: ''I used to like to hear him admire the beauty of a flower; it was a kind of gratitude to the flower itself and a personal love for its delicate form and colour. I seem to remember him gently touching a flower he delighted in; it was the same simple admiration that a child might feel."

Anthony Doerr is the author of ''The Shell Collector" and ''About Grace."

Workers World [3.11.06]

The headlines were intriguing. “A Free-for-All on Science and Religion,” wrote the New York Times. “Losing Our Religion: A gathering of scientists and atheists explores whether faith in science can ever substitute for belief in God,” was Newsweek’s version. New Scientist magazine called its article “Beyond Belief—In Place of God: Can secular science ever oust religious belief—and should it even try?”

The reports summarized the highlights of a conference, held Nov. 5-7 at the Salk Institute in La Jolla, Calif., that attracted a large number of very prominent scientists, mostly from the United States and Britain, for a discussion called “Beyond Belief: Science, Religion, Reason and Survival.”

Richard Dawkins was there, an evolutionary biologist from Britain who wrote “The God Delusion,” currently a best seller.

Sam Harris, a doctoral student in neuroscience, also spoke. He is author of “Letter to a Christian Nation,” another recent best seller, as well as an earlier book, “The End of Faith: Religion, Terror and the Future of Reason.”

Physicist and Nobel laureate Steven Weinberg also spoke, as did Neil deGrasse Tyson, director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York. Carolyn Porco of the Space Science Institute in Boulder, Colo., seemed to be one of the very few women speakers in a conference dominated by white men.

The published accounts mentioned above emphasize that the overwhelming majority of the conferees identified themselves as atheists or non-believers and the speakers posed the issue as a conflict between reason and dogma. But they sharply debated one another on what scientists’ attitude should be toward religion.

If anyone at the conference took a historical materialist view of this question—that is, a Marxist view—the mass media did not report it.

That alone is worthy of note, because for many years a conference in the U.S. that promoted atheism would have been branded “communist” by much of the commercial media. That certainly was the case during the years of the Reagan administration, when the influence of the religious right in politics was very consciously promoted at the same time that a major assault was being made on social programs benefiting the working class.

It was considered a noteworthy break with these political and ideological forces when Nancy Reagan later disagreed publicly with the religious right over the issue of stem-cell research, after her husband was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.

But since the collapse of the USSR, the debate over science and religion has taken a new turn. The prominent speakers at this conference could not be considered leftists by any stretch of the imagination.

What Marx said about religion

When Karl Marx wrote about religion in the mid-19th century, at a time when much of the new ruling bourgeois class in Europe still identified with the Enlightenment as against medieval dogma, he was able to say about the German intellectual establishment that, “[T]he criticism of religion has been essentially completed.”

But he went on to explain why religion continued to have a strong influence among the masses.

“Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.

“The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. ... The criticism of religion is, therefore, in embryo, the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo.” (Karl Marx, “A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right,” 1844)

Marx’s term “the opium of the people” is often quoted out of context, as though it were nothing but a slur against religion. But here it is obvious that he was referring quite eloquently to how people turn to religion to dull their pain over unbearable social conditions that need to be abolished.

Marxism goes to the heart of the problem. The new capitalist class needed rationalism as against dogma in order to lay the basis for the tremendous scientific-technological development that vastly expanded its means of production and commerce. But capitalism brought with it new horrors for the masses—the conversion of much of the peasantry into wage laborers working 12 to 14 hours a day in the hellish mines and factories.

Thus this new system, which needed rationalism and science in order to grow, at the same time propagated the social conditions that ensured a continued place for religion among the masses. Even today, after several centuries of scientific discoveries that have transformed the way in which every daily task is done—and have brought immense fortunes to those in the ruling class—a large percentage of the people cling to religion as “the heart of a heartless world,” to use Marx’s phrase.

Did the conference in La Jolla look at religion in this social context? Not if the published accounts correctly represent it.

What, then, spurred on scientists to organize such a gathering at this time?

One would certainly expect that much of the energy for it came from the need to respond to the increasing efforts by the religious right and certain corporate interests to impose anti-scientific views on society. The attempts to legislate the teaching of “creationism” as opposed to evolution, the opposition to stem-cell research by churches claiming to defend the “unborn,” the denial of global warming by scientists funded by energy companies—all this cries out for a counter-attack by scientists. Undoubtedly, many of the attendees at the conference came because of this political climate.

But there was another and more disturbing motivation, and it was pushed by some of the most prominent speakers.

The Web site edge.org is devoted to scientific discussion. According to a critique of the conference written for Edge by participant Scott Atran, “We first heard from Steven Weinberg, and then from every other second speaker, about the history of Islam, about why Muslim science went into decline after the 13th or 14th centuries, and about why suicide bombers, the most fanatically religious of all would-be mass murderers, are an outgrowth of Islam. Missing at ‘Beyond Belief’ was erudition and deep understanding of Islamic history other than the usual summaries of names and achievements. ...

“We heard from Sam Harris that Muslims represent less than 10 percent of the population in Western European countries such as France, but over 50 percent of the prison population. The obvious inference expected from the audience is that Islam encourages criminal behavior. ...

“Richard Dawkins tells us that Islam oppresses women.”

The New York Times article of Nov. 21 confirmed that Islam-bashing was a strong component of this conference. “By shying away from questioning people’s deeply felt beliefs, even the skeptics, Mr. [Sam] Harris said, are providing safe harbor for ideas that are at best mistaken and at worst dangerous. ‘I don’t know how many more engineers and architects need to fly planes into our buildings before we realize that this is not merely a matter of lack of education or economic despair,’ he said.”

In Harris’s book “Letter to a Christian Nation,” he tries to ingratiate himself with Christians in the United States by saying, “Nonbelievers like myself stand beside you dumbstruck by the Muslim hordes who chant death to whole nations of the living. But we stand dumbstruck by you as well—by your denial of tangible reality, by the suffering you create in service to your religious myths, and by your attachment to an imaginary God.”

Harris says he started writing the book the day after 9/11.

Clearly, the time has not yet come when scientists in the imperialist countries can be expected to organize a truly scientific discussion on religion. That would require an honest, dispassionate view of the world today as it is: divided between the rich and the poor, the oppressor and the oppressed, the imperialist countries and those fighting against efforts to re-colonize them.

Islamic fundamentalism is flourishing among the oppressed as U.S. and British imperialists inflict unspeakable atrocities on the peoples of the Middle East. It cannot be equated with Christian fundamentalism in Western imperialist countries.

What is needed to counteract dogma is not just atheism but a Marxist-Leninist world view that understands religion and all social phenomena in their real context and can apply this to the current period in human history, which is characterized above all by the capitalist division of society into opposing social classes and a world system in which a few imperialist countries super-exploit the majority of the human race. The triumph of “reason” will come when the masses of people overturn this unjust, antiquated social system.

E-mail: [email protected]

NPR [3.8.06]


Thinkers Lay Out the Beliefs They Can't Prove

Our day-to-day beliefs often come from established theories, but what about beliefs based on theories in progress? A new book asks literary and scientific thinkers about what they believe but cannot prove.


John Brockman, editor, What We Believe But Cannot Prove: Today's Leading Thinkers in Science in the Age of Certainty; author and literary agent; publisher and editor of Edge.org

Richard Dawkins, evolutionary biologist; professor of the public understanding of science at Oxford University; author of many books about science and evolution, including The Selfish Gene and most recently, The Ancestor's Tale: A Pilgrimage to the Dawn of Evolution

Alison Gopnik, professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley; her books include The Scientist in the Crib

Paul Steinhardt, theoretical physicist; Albert Einstein professor of science at Princeton University

De Groene Amsterdammer [3.2.06]

Cultural impressario John Brockman publishers at his website Edge.org answers to dangerous questions. Mankind does not come off well.

...You get absorbed in reading answers to the question, publishes as the Edge Annual Question 2006. Though the intellectuals and scientists form no coherent group, there is a general tenor. Philosophizing on free weill has no purpose if you haven'y been buried in neuro-biology for a year or two.

The Financial Express [2.28.06]

A wide cross-section of people from among the intelligentsia responded to this fundamental paradox of life. The cynic and the optimist, the agnostic and the believer, the rationalist and the obscurantist, the scientist and the speculative philosopher, the realist and the idealist-all converge on a critical point in their thought process where reasoning loses its power. Love, existence of God, primacy of the entity called consciousness or life were the issues that came within the purview of the deliberation.

The New York Times [2.11.06]

Edge.org has an article titled "Who Really Won the Super Bowl?" by Marco Iacoboni, a neuroscientist at the U.C.L.A. Ahmanson-Lovelace Brain Mapping Center. Dr. Iacoboni and his colleagues used fast magnetic resonance imaging technology to observe brain responses to commercials shown during the Super Bowl.

The overwhelming winner among the Super Bowl ads is the Disney-NFL "I am going to Disney" ad. The Disney ad elicited strong responses in orbito-frontal cortex and ventral striatum, two brain regions associated with processing of rewards. Also, the Disney ad induced robust responses in mirror neuron areas, indicating identification and empathy. Further, the circuit for cognitive control, encompassing anterior cingulate cortex and dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, was highly active while watching the Disney ad....

The three biggest flops seem to be the Burger King ad, the FedEx ad, and the GoDaddy ad. Three quite interesting features that come out of this instant study are the following: first, people — when interviewed — tend to say what they are expected to say, but their brain seems to say the opposite. For instance, female subjects may give verbally very low "grades" to ads using actresses in sexy roles, but their mirror neuron areas seem to fire up quite a bit, suggesting some form of identification and empathy. Second ... we saw strong habituation effects, such that the second time around the commercial induces much weaker responses. Third — and this is probably interesting to neuroscientists — among brain regions associated with complex social behavior, we observed a mix of activation and de-activation.

Lavanguardia [2.8.06]

Can a person be considered cultured today with only slight knowledge of fields such as molecular biology, artificial intelligence, chaos theory, fractals, biodiversity, nanotechnology or the human genome?  Can we construct a proposal of universal knowledge without such knowledge?  The integration of  "literary culture" and "scientific culture" is the basis for what some call the "third culture":  a source of metaphors that renews not only the language, but also the conceptual tookit of classic humanism
The New Humanists 
A polifacética figure
Brockman and the New Intellectuals 
“Science won the battle”
“¿Qué queda del marxismo? ¿Qué queda de Freud? La neurociencia le ha dejado como una superstición del siglo XVIII, de ideas irrelevantes"

The Times [1.29.06]

FIRST CAME the Beethoven concert, the boat trip on a lake and the fine dinner; then the tearful goodbyes and the barbiturates. On the eve of her 67th birthday, surrounded by her adoring children, Dr Anne Turner finally ended a life that would have been cruelly curtailed by progressive supranuclear palsy, an incurable degenerative disease. “I don’t think death has ever held any fear for me,” she once said.

Suicide is a horribly arresting phenomenon. Remember the photograph of the lawyer teetering on a window ledge in West London before jumping to her death? Remember the footage of the young Indian woman who threw herself and her two young children under the Heathrow Express?

Taking one’s own life goes against one of our strongest urges — the instinct of self-preservation. The deterioration of this instinct, says Thomas Joiner, Bright-Burton Professor of Psychology at Florida State University, should be regarded as a symptom of disease. “There’s an idea that suicide is a mode of death that stands apart from others, but there are clear reasons why people die by suicide,” he says. “Just like heart disease, if you understand it, you can prevent it.”

His theory, outlined in Why People Die By Suicide (Harvard University Press), published this month, is that it happens when severely depressed people acquire fearlessness. How do people become fearless? Through practice and learning, he says. This explains the bouts of self-harm or failed suicide attempts that are not cries for help so much as rehearsals for a deadly finale.

He also points out that certain groups who are exposed repeatedly to pain and suffering — anorexics, doctors, athletes, prostitutes — have higher rates of suicide than other groups. Their acquired immunity to fear and pain is the extra crucial ingredient that, combined with a perception of being a burden and a feeling of not belonging, can have a fatal outcome.

Joiner, whose father killed himself, adds that anti-suicide campaigns may be counterproductive because they serve as a reminder of the act. He says that the most effective way of preventing suicide is to improve a person’s sense of belonging and contribution to society. Since killing oneself requires fearlessness, shouldn’t we revise the portrayal of suicide as the ultimate act of cowardice?

  • ON TO cheerier matters. When people turn up to a dinner before the appointed 7pm start, you know it’s going to be fun. And so it was on Tuesday when the literary agent John Brockman hosted a gathering in Soho. I showed up at 7.10pm, depriving myself of ten minutes of serious schmoozing.

    Brian Eno was there, as were Richard Dawkins and Simon Baron-Cohen, the autism researcher. Colin Blakemore, the head of the Medical Research Council, came along, joining the authors Olivia Judson, Matt Ridley, Armand Leroi and David Bodanis (the fastest talker I’ve ever met). Ian McEwan dropped by. The editors ofNature, New Scientist and Prospect mingled amiably.I ended up sharing a pudding plate with Craig Venter, the Celera Genomics entrepreneur who helped to unravel the human genome and in whose honour the dinner was held. Venter feels aggrieved at his portrayal in the British press as a ruthless, money-grabbing maverick (I’d be a bit miffed, too, if my enemies compared me with Hitler, as happened to Venter in a book extract in The Guardian). He points out that he owns fewer patents than Francis Collins, the publicly funded American scientist who was another leading figure in the Human Genome Project.

    But when you’re clever enough to start your own research institute, rich enough to drive an Aston Martin and famous enough to have inspired several unauthorised biographies, surely you can rise above it? “Underneath, it still hurts,” says Venter, with endearing honesty. I await his autobiography, due out next year, with eagerness.

  • TRUST Ken Livingstone to come up with another original political idea. At a debate in City Hall to mark the paperback publication of Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, by Jared Diamond, the Mayor of London suggested that anyone believing in the afterlife should be barred from public office. If politicians thought they had only this life, he argued, they would make a better fist of it. The audience clapped with delight. I don’t think Ken was joking.

El Correo Gallego [1.28.06]

La afirmación políticamente más incorrecta, a cuyo autor pueden acusarlo de racista si no de nazi, es que hay grupos humanos cuyas características genéticas los hacen más inteligentes que otros.

Lo malo es que esto lo afirman algunos científicos al contestar a la pregunta que hace cada año The Edge (www.edge.org), órgano de un club de sabios de todo el planeta que se plantean problemas aparentemente simples que son comple- jísimos. La cuestión de 2006, que responderán hasta 2007 miles de investigadores, la presentó Steven Pinker, psicolingüista, profesor de psicología en Harvard. Recuerda Pinker que la historia de la ciencia está repleta de descubrimientos que fueron considerados social, moral y emocionalmente peligrosos; los más obvios, la revolución copernicana y la darwiniana.

Santiago — Domingo [1.28.06]

La afirmación políticamente más incorrecta, a cuyo autor pueden acusarlo de racista si no de nazi, es que hay grupos humanos cuyas características genéticas los hacen más inteligentes que otros.

Lo malo es que esto lo afirman algunos científicos al contestar a la pregunta que hace cada año The Edge (www.edge.org), órgano de un club de sabios de todo el planeta que se plantean problemas aparentemente simples que son comple- jísimos. La cuestión de 2006, que responderán hasta 2007 miles de investigadores, la presentó Steven Pinker, psicolingüista, profesor de psicología en Harvard. Recuerda Pinker que la historia de la ciencia está repleta de descubrimientos que fueron considerados social, moral y emocionalmente peligrosos; los más obvios, la revolución copernicana y la darwiniana.

nrc.nl [1.27.06]

Web magazine Edge asked 119 scientists for their dangerous ideas. What if reality is not what we think it is? ...The edge annual Question 2006 was suggested by psychologist Steven Pinker... In general, the 119 intelectuals see 3 kinds of danger: intellectual; social/moral; total destruction.

Rocky Mountain News [1.20.06]

Most of the contributors appear to have interpreted "dangerous" as meaning something like "subversive," challenging to one or another received orthodoxy. ... In that spirit, here is my dangerous idea: Every child in school deserves an individual IQ test. ... And the corollary: Every statistical analysis of school- and district-level data should include individual IQ as one of the variables measured. ...Why is that subversive? Because so many people, especially in education, are terrified to admit that individual IQ has anything to do with academic achievement, because it is not evenly distributed demographically.

http://www.edge.org/q2006/q06_index.html [1.20.06]

Most of the contributors appear to have interpreted "dangerous" as meaning something like "subversive," challenging to one or another received orthodoxy. ... In that spirit, here is my dangerous idea: Every child in school deserves an individual IQ test. ... And the corollary: Every statistical analysis of school- and district-level data should include individual IQ as one of the variables measured. ... Why is that subversive? Because so many people, especially in education, are terrified to admit that individual IQ has anything to do with academic achievement, because it is not evenly distributed demographically.

The Chronicle Review [1.19.06]

To the Editor:

David Barash provides useful and interesting insights and background information regarding the state of academic discourse in England at the time C.P. Snow presented his Rede Lecture, which became The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution.

That was then. This is now.

Barash writes: "We might also ask whether scientists are doing a better job of communicating with the public, crossing the Snow bridge and thereby constituting a Third Culture, as John Brockman has claimed."...

While I agree with his statement that "there is nothing new in scientists reaching out to hoi polloi," that's not what the Third Culture is about. This position is presented in "The Emerging Third Culture," an essay I wrote in 1991, and in my book The Third Culture(Simon and Schuster, 1995).

What's different between now and Snow's day is that although journalists used to write up while professors wrote down, today scientists are using popular books, accessible to the general public, as a way of developing their best ideas and communicating with their peers. There are no longer two separate activities, serious science and popular science writing; they've come together as a Third Culture i.e., 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 wide appeal of the third-culture thinkers is not due solely to their writing ability; what traditionally has been called science has today become public culture. And since we now live in a world in which the rate of change is the biggest change, science has become a big story....

John Brockman
New York

Syndey — News In Review Into the minds of the believers
The Sunday Telegraph [1.14.06]

With the aim of gathering ideas from the world's leading thinkers on intellectual, philosophical, artistic and literary issues, US writer John Brockman established The Edge Foundation in 1988. Since 1997, Edge has been running on the Internet (www.edge.org), and every year poses a question in its The World Question Centre.

Read the full article →


Peering into their crystal telescopes, the world's leading scientists see a magnificent future:

* "The use of proteins and other markers [will] permit the early detection and identification of cancer, hugely increasing the prospects of survival."

* "Young adults alive today will, on average, live to 120."

* "Eternal life may come within our reach once we understand enough about how our knowledge and mental processes work ... to duplicate that information -- and then [transfer it] into more robust machines."

* "Someone who is already alive will be the first person to make their permanent home off-Earth."

* "Within a generation ... we will be able to make self-replicating machines that ... absorb energy through solar cells, eat rock and use the energy and minerals to make copies of itself ... [as well as] toasters, refrigerators, and Lamborghinis."

Those are just five of the gee-whiz prognostications offered in response to the 10th Annual Edge Question, posed by John Brockman, editor of the science web site www.edge.org. This year, Richard Dawkins, Steven Pinker, Jared Diamond, Freeman Dyson and J. Craig Venter were among the 160 luminaries who in short, clear essays, tackled the question "What are you optimistic about?"

Forcing respondents to set aside the doom-and-gloom mindset that passes for sophistication, Brockman elicited answers that remind us that we are living in a Golden Age of discovery. The biologists, physicists and computer scientists he queried believe that the 20th-century breakthroughs that have enabled us to live longer, healthier and more comfortable lives may be dwarfed by the accomplishments on the near horizon. ...

The overriding hope among Edge respondents is that our increased capacity to gather and analyze information will spark the rise of an "evidence-based" world. We see this already in the field of criminal justice, where people convicted on faulty "eyewitness" testimony have been freed thanks to DNA. In the future, respondents argue, the instincts and perceptions that inform so much of our political, legal and cultural decision-making will be replaced by hard facts.

"We will learn more about the human condition in the next two decades than we did in the last two millennia, and we will then begin to apply what we learn, everywhere," writes Clay Shirky of NYU's Graduate School of Interactive Telecommunications Program. "Evidence-based treaties. Evidence-based teaching. Evidence-based industrial design. Evidence-based parenting."

These are exciting times. Next week I'll write about why I'm optimistic, and I'd love to hear from you. Please phone or e-mail and let me know: What are you optimistic about? ...

Physics World [1.11.06]

My Einstein, edited by John Brockman, the founder of the Edge forum (www.edge.org), brings together essays by 24 leading scientists and science writers in which they discuss how Einstein has influenced their professional and personal lives.... Like other Edge projects, Brockman has brought together an impressive selection of thinkers to produce an accessible and entertaining book.

The school Administrator [1.11.06]

The renowned neuroscientist V. S. Ramachandran suggested earlier this year on a website known as The Edge (www. edge.org) that mirror neurons may provide the same powerful unifying framework for our understanding of teaching and learning that the 1953 discovery of DNA did for our understanding of genetics. ...

The Third Ring: Radio3 Science [1.10.06]

Theories of social nets and their relationship with the contemporary sociology, dangerous ideas of scientists on Radio3 Scienza on Radio3.

FT.com [1.10.06]

Please respect FT.com's ts&cs and copyright policy which allow you to: share links; copy content for personal use; & redistribute limited extracts. Email [email protected] to buy additional rights or use this link to reference the article - http://www.ft.com/cms/s/2/1cfc5252-8248-11da-aea0-0000779e2340.html#ixzz1APrJSSJH

Every year, the literary agent John Brockman invites 100 or so scientists and other thinkers to answer the "edge question". This year it was: "What is your dangerous idea?" In particular, respondents were asked for an idea that would be dangerous if it were true.

The results (collected at www.edge.org) give an insight into how philosophically minded scientists are thinking: the result is somewhere between a multi-disciplinary seminar and elevated high table talk. The responses to Brockman's question do not directly engage with each other, but they do worry away at a core set of themes. Many agree that neuroscience at the micro level and evolutionary psychology at the macro level have abolished free will. Richard Dawkins is typical: "Assigning blame and responsibility is an aspect of the useful fiction of intentional agents that we construct in our brains as a means of short-cutting a truer analysis of what is going on in the world." Holding people responsible for their behaviour is, in his view, completely irrational.

Some of the most insightful contributions come when the thinkers revolt against the implications of their own work. Jared Diamond, for example, warns against the sentimental anthropological fallacy that premodern cultures can do no wrong. (His own Guns, Germs and Steel, unkindly caricatured, would be one example.) On the contrary, he says, tribal peoples often damage their environment and make war.

Kevin Kelly bravely takes on technologists' received wisdom that ever-increasing anonymity is a positive good. Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi thinks the free market as ultimate arbiter of political questions is a dangerous idea. The physicist Haim Harari thinks democracy itself is on the way out.

There are, of course, people who refuse to play. Daniel Gilbert, a Harvard psychologist, flatly says the most dangerous idea is the idea that ideas can be dangerous. "Hateful, blasphemous, prejudiced, vulgar, rude or ignorant remarks are the music of a free society, and the relentless patter of idiots is how we know we're in one." But he seems to be confusing the question of whether ideas can be dangerous, with the question of what to do about them. History is littered with ideas that were genuinely damaging when widely adopted. Richard Dawkins, when coining the notion of the meme, explicitly conceded that, unlike genes, they could be maladaptive to their hosts. Religion was his main example; most forms of irrationality are bad ideas.

Where Gilbert may be right is that in a free society bad ideas will be exposed and wither, and any attempt to control ideas is more dangerous. Seth Lloyd, of Massachusetts Institute of Technology, says the most dangerous idea is the genetic breakthrough that made people capable of ideas themselves. But "to suppress the power of ideas will hasten catastrophe, not avert it". The computer scientist Danny Hillis says loftily that when he has dangerous ideas he doesn't share them.

There are pessimists. David Bodanis worries that the Islamicist critique of western decadence might be true. Geoffrey Miller, an evolutionary psychologist at the University of New Mexico, paints a picture of mainstream modern society retreating into technologically enhanced solipsism ("MIT graduates apply to do computer game design for Electronic Arts, rather than rocket science for Nasa"), so that the only people prepared to engage with the physical world are religious fundamentalists and environmentalist Luddites. David Gelernter of Yale pours wonderful scorn on the idea of this being an "information age": if that is true, he says, what exactly are we informed about? Certainly not history, literature, philosophy or scholarship. Kai Krause, a software developer and philosopher, worries that the global drive towards individualism will lead to ever more elaborate acts of terrorism.

But Daniel Dennett goes one bigger: his dangerous idea is that the explosion of ideas is accelerating so fast that we will run out of human minds to contain them. If he is right, all the future holds is a series of mutually incomprehensible monologues. If he is right, the most dangerous ideas are trivial ones, which soak up attention that should be put to better use.