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2005

"What Do You Believe Is True Even Though You Cannot Prove It?"


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The natural gift of consciousness should be treasured all the more for its transience.

The answers...exert an un- questionable morbid fascination — those are the very ideas that scientists cannot confess in their technical papers.

"Fate largo alle «beautiful minds» di Roberto Casati;;
"La terza cultura di John Brockman" di Armando Massarenti

God (or Not), Physics and, of Course, Love: Scientists Take a Leap: Fourteen scientists ponder everything from string theory to true love.

Space Without Time, Time Without Rest: John Brockman's Question for the Republic of WisdomIt can be more thrilling to start the New Year with a good question than with a good intention. That's what John Brockman is doing for the eight time in a row.
What do you believe to be true, even though you can’t prove it? John Brockman asked over a hundred scientists and intellectuals... more» ... Edge  

That's what online magazine The Edge - the World Question Center asked over 120 scientists, futurists, and other interesting minds. Their answers are sometimes short and to the point

Science's Scourge of Believers Declares His Faith in Darwin...
Singolare inchiesta in usa di un sito internet. Ha chiesto ai signori della ricerca di svelare i loro "atti di fede". Sono arrivate le risposte piu' imprevedibili i fantasmi dello scienziato: non ho prove ma ci credo.
To celebrate the new year, online magazine Edge asked some leading thinkers a simple question: What do you believe but cannot prove? Here is a selection of their responses...
Scientists dream too - imagine that
"Fantastically stimulating ...Once you start, you can't stop thinking about that question. It's like the crack cocaine of the thinking world." — BBC Radio 4
Scientists, increasingly, have become our public intellectuals, to whom we look for explanations and solutions. These may be partial and imperfect, but they are more satisfactory than the alternatives.

Bangladesh—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.

Il Sole 24 Ore-Domenica Segnalate le vostre cuioosita, chiederemo riposta alle persone piu autorevoli



CONTRIBUTORS

Alun Anderson

Chris W. Anderson

Philip W. Anderson

Scott Atran

Simon Baron-Cohen

John Barrow

Gregory Benford

Jesse Bering

Susan Blackmore

Ned Block

Paul Bloom

David Buss

William Calvin

Leo Chalupa

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

Paul Davies

Richard Dawkins

Stanislas Deheane

Daniel C. Dennett

Keith Devlin

Jared Diamond

Denis Dutton

Esther Dyson

Freeman Dyson

George Dyson

Jeffrey Epstein

Todd Feinberg

Christine Finn

Kenneth Ford

Howard Gardner

David Gelernter

Neil Gershenfeld

Steve Giddings

Daniel Gilbert

Rebecca Goldstein

Daniel Goleman

Brian Goodwin

Alison Gopnik

Jonathan Haidt

Haim Harari

Judith Rich Harris

Sam Harris

Marc D. Hauser

Marti Hearst

W. Daniel Hillis

Donald Hoffman

John Horgan

Verena Huber-Dyson

Nicholas Humphrey

Piet Hut

Stuart Kauffman

Alan Kay

Kevin Kelly

Stephen Kosslyn

Kai Krause

Lawrence Krauss

Ray Kurzweil

Jaron Lanier

Leon Lederman

Janna Levin

Joseph LeDoux

Seth Lloyd

Benoit Mandelbrot

Gary Marcus

Lynn Margulis

John McCarthy

Pamela McCorduck

Ian McEwan

John McWhorter

Thomas Metzinger

Oliver Morton

David Myers

Randolph Nesse

Tor Nørretranders

Martin Nowak

James O'Donnell

Alex Pentland

Irene Pepperberg

Stephen Petranek

Clifford Pickover

Steven Pinker

Jordan Pollack

Carolyn Porco

Robert R. Provine

Martin Rees

Howard Rheingold

Carlo Rovelli

Rudy Rucker

Douglas Rushkoff

Karl Sabbagh

Robert Sapolsky

Roger Schank

Jean Paul Schmetz

Stephen H. Schneider

Gino Segre

Martin E. P. Seligman

Terrence Sejnowski

Rupert Sheldrake

Michael Shermer

Charles Simonyi

John R. Skoyles

Lee Smolin

Elizabeth Spelke

Maria Spiropulu

Tom Standage

Paul Steinhardt

Bruce Sterling

Leonard Susskind

Nassim Taleb

Timothy Taylor

Arnold Trehub

Robert Trivers

J. Craig Venter

Alexander Vilenkin

Margaret Wertheim

Donald I. Williamson

Ian Wilmut

Ellen Winner

Anton Zeilinger

 


2004


"So now, into the breach comes John Brockman, the literary agent and gadfly, whose online scientific salon, Edge.org, has become one of the most interesting stopping places on the Web. He begins every year by posing a question to his distinguished roster of authors and invited guests. Last year he asked what sort of counsel each would offer George W. Bush as the nation's top science adviser. This time the question is "What's your law?"
"John Brockman, a New York literary agent, writer and impresario of the online salon Edge, figures it is time for more scientists to get in on the whole naming thing...As a New Year's exercise, he asked scores of leading thinkers in the natural and social sciences for "some bit of wisdom, some rule of nature, some law-like pattern, either grand or small, that you've noticed in the universe that might as well be named after you."
"John Brockman has posted an intriguing question on his Edge website. Brockman advises his would-be legislators to stick to the scientific disciplines."
"Everything answers to the rule of law. Nature. Science. Society. All of it obeys a set of codes...It's the thinker's challenge to put words to these unwritten rules. Do so, and he or she may go down in history. Like a Newton or, more recently, a Gordon Moore, who in 1965 coined the most cited theory of the technological age, an observation on how computers grow exponentially cheaper and more powerful... Recently, John Brockman went looking for more laws."

2003


"In 2002, he [Brockman] asked respondents to imagine that they had been nominated as White House science adviser and that President Bush had sought their answer to 'What are the pressing scientific issues for the nation and the world, and what is your advice on how I can begin to deal with them?'Here are excerpts of some of the responses. "
"Edge's combination of political engagement and blue-sky thinking makes stimulating reading for anyone seeking a glimpse into the next decade."
"Dear W: Scientists Offer
President Advice on Policy"
"There are 84 responses, ranging in topic from advanced nanotechnology to the psychology of foreign cultures, and lots of ideas regarding science, technology, politics, and education."

2002


"Brockman's thinkers of the 'Third Culture,' whether they, like Dawkins, study evolutionary biology at Oxford or, like Alan Alda, portray scientists on Broadway, know no taboos. Everything is permitted, and nothing is excluded from this intellectual game."
"The responses are generally written in an engaging, casual style (perhaps encouraged by the medium of e-mail), and are often fascinating and thought - provoking.... These are all wonderful, intelligent questions..."

2001—9/11


  "We are interested in ‘thinking smart,'" declares Brockman on the site, "we are not interested in the anesthesiology of ‘wisdom.'"
"INSPIRED ARENA: Edge has been bringing together the world's foremost scientific thinkers since 1998, and the response to September 11 was measured and uplifting."

2001


"Responses to this year's question are deliciously creative... the variety astonishes. Edge continues to launch intellectual skyrockets of stunning brilliance. Nobody in the world is doing what Edge is doing."
"Once a year, John Brockman of New York, a writer and literary agent who represents many scientists, poses a question in his online journal, The Edge, and invites the thousand or so people on his mailing list to answer it."

2000


"Don't assume for a second that Ted Koppel, Charlie Rose and the editorial high command at the New York Times have a handle on all the pressing issues of the day.... a lengthy list of profound, esoteric and outright entertaining responses.

1999


"A terrific, thought provoking site."
"The Power of Big Ideas"
"The Nominees for Best Invention Of the Last Two Millennia Are . . ."
"...Thoughtful and often surprising answers ....a fascinating survey of intellectual and creative wonders of the world ..... Reading them reminds me of how wondrous our world is." — Bill Gates, New York Times Syndicated Column

1998


"A site that has raised electronic discourse on the Web to a whole new level.... Genuine learning seems to be going on here."
"To mark the first anniversary of [Edge], Brockman posed a question: 'Simply reading the six million volumes in the Widener Library does not necessarily lead to a complex and subtle mind," he wrote, referring to the Harvard library. "How to avoid the anesthesiology of wisdom?' "
"Home to often lively, sometimes obscure and almost always ambitious discussions."



 

"Big, deep and ambitious questions....breathtaking in scope. Keep watching The World Question Center." — New Scientist

The Edge Annual Question—2005

"Fantastically stimulating...Once you start, you can't stop thinking about that question." — BBC Radio 4


"WHAT DO YOU BELIEVE IS TRUE EVEN THOUGH YOU CANNOT PROVE IT?"

Great minds can sometimes guess the truth before they have either the evidence or arguments for it (Diderot called it having the "esprit de divination"). What do you believe is true even though you cannot prove it?


The 2005 Edge Question has generated many eye-opening responses from a "who's who" of third culture scientists and science-minded thinkers. The 120 contributions comprise a document of 60,000 words.

The New York Times ("Science Times") and Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung ("Feuilliton") published excepts in their print and online editions simultaneously with Edge publication. Other international papers followed (below).

In a front-page article, Il Sole 24 Ore, Italy's largest financial daily, announced the "Edge Question Forum" in "Domenica", the weekend Arts & Culture section. The Forum, an ongoing project designed to bring third culture thinking to Italy, features excerpts from the Edge responses in addition to articles solicited rom Italian humanist intellectuals and scientists.

In the responses to this year's question, there's a focus on consciousness, on knowing, on ideas of truth and proof. If pushed to generalize, I would say it is a commentary on how we are dealing with the idea of certainty.

We are in the age of "searchculture", in which Google and other search engines are leading us into a future rich with an abundance of correct answers along with an accompanying naïve sense of certainty. In the future, we will be able to answer the question, but will we be bright enough to ask it?

This is an alternative path. It may be that it's okay not to be certain, but to have a hunch, and to perceive on that basis. There is also evidence here that the scientists are thinking beyond their individual fields. Yes, they are engaged in the science of their own areas of research, but more importantly they are also thinking deeply about creating new understandings about the limits of science, of seeing science not just as a question of knowing things, but as a means of tuning into the deeper questions of who we are and how we know.

It may sound as if I am referring to a group of intellectuals, and not scientists. In fact, I refer to both. In 1991, I suggested the idea of a third culture, which "consists 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. "

I believe that the scientists of the third culture are the pre-eminent intellectuals of our time. But I can't prove it.

Happy New Year!

John Brockman
Publisher & Editor


This year's Edge Question was suggested by Nicholas Humphrey.


(120 contributors; 60,000 words:) Howard GardnerNicholas HumphreyMarc D. HauserDaniel GilbertGeorge DysonDaniel C. DennettWilliam Calvin Lawrence KraussNeil GershenfeldJoseph LeDouxStephen KosslynPhilip W. AndersonKevin KellyPaul DaviesHaim HarariJanna LevinSteven PinkerAlison GopnikMartin E. P. SeligmanJohn McWhorterFreeman DysonRobert Sapolsky • Leonard SusskindKeith DevlinSusan BlackmoreClifford PickoverPiet HutGino SegreRoger SchankAlan KayBruce SterlingJudith Rich HarrisArnold TrehubGregory BenfordLynn MargulisSam HarrisElizabeth SpelkeKai KrauseTodd FeinbergNassim Nicholas TalebIrene PepperbergJesse BeringScott Atran Karl SabbaghGary MarcusStuart A. KauffmanRay KurzweilJohn BarrowJaron LanierAlex Pentland Richard DawkinsJean Paul SchmetzThomas MetzingerJohn R. SkoylesJohn HorganDavid GelernterJordan PollackLee SmolinMihaly CsikszentmihalyiJeffrey EpsteinMichael ShermerLeon LedermanTom StandageSimon Baron-CohenStephen PetranekJ. Craig Venter Maria SpiropuluDavid BussEsther DysonDavid MyersDenis DuttonDonald HoffmanKenneth FordMargaret WertheimAlun Anderson Philip ZimbardoPaul BloomRobert ProvineW. Daniel HillisMartin NowakSeth LloydDonald I. WilliamsonJonathan HaidtRebecca GoldsteinNed BlockChristine FinnRupert SheldrakeRudy RuckerDouglas RushkoffVerena Huber-DysonChris W. AndersonCharles SimonyiCarolyn PorcoMartin ReesPamela McCorduckJames O'DonnellJohn McCarthyCarlo RovelliLeo ChalupaHoward RheingoldSteve GiddingsTor NørretrandersStanislas DeheaneBenoit MandelbrotEllen Winner Paul SteinhardtOliver MortonAlexander VilenkinTerrence SejnowskiBrian GoodwinStephen H. SchneiderRandolph NesseTimothy TaylorMarti HearstDaniel GolemanJared DiamondAnton ZeilingerIan WilmutRobert TriversIan McEwan



April 2005
I call it "Broks's paradox": the condition of believing that the mind is separate from the body, even though you know this belief to be untrue


Paul Broks


I've been browsing the "World Question Centre" at edge.org, the website for thinking folk with time on their hands. The 2005 Edge question is a good one: "What do you believe is true even though you cannot prove it?"

...Ian McEwan" makes a telling point. "What I believe but cannot prove," he says, "is that no part of my consciousness will survive my death." His enlightened fellow Edge contributors will take this as a given, but they may not appreciate its significance, which is that belief in an afterlife "divides the world crucially, and much damage has been done to thought as well as to persons by those who are certain that there is a life, a better, more important life, elsewhere." The natural gift of consciousness should be treasured all the more for its transience.


Society
LO QUE CREEN LOS CIENTIFICOS
Domingo 20 of February of 2005

JAVIER SAMPEDRO, Madrid

John Brockman, writer, publisher and events manager for the science elite, has asked a hundred researchers the question, What do you believe is true even though you cannot prove it? The answers are posted at his e-magazine Edge (www.edge.org), and they exert an unquestionable morbid fascination—those are the very ideas that scientists cannot confess in their technical papers.

Since the Big Bang, matter has been busy organizing itself on particles, atoms, stars, planets, organic compounds and (on Earth at least) bacteria, animals and conscious brains. That is what scientists think proved. But their unproven beliefs tell another story, or thousand others.

“I doubt that the Big Bang is the beginning of time, I strongly suspect that our history extends backwards before that”, writes in Edge Lee Smolin, theoretical physicist. He cannot prove it, but he believes it. As his colleague Lawrence Krauss believes, without proofs too, that “there are likely to be a large, and possibly infinite number of other universes out there, some of which may be experiencing Big Bangs at the current moment”.

God does not play dices, said Einstein, but Alexander Vilenkin thinks he played dices too much…

Spanish original...



January 16 Domenica
EDGE QUESTION FORUM
Curated by Armando Massarenti

In a front-page article, Il Sole 24 Ore, Italy's largest financial daily, announced the "Edge Question Forum" in "Domenica", the weekend Arts & Culture section. The Forum, an ongoing project designed to bring third culture thinking to Italy, features excerpts from the Edge responses in addition to articles solicited rom Italian humanist intellectuals and scientists.



Bangladesh
SATURDAY FEATURE
Where reasoning loses its power

by Syed Fattahul Alim
Saturday, January 15

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.



Moralists merely wail, but science gives us answers
By Minnette Minette Marrin
Comment — Sunday, January 9

Scientists, increasingly, have become our public intellectuals, to whom we look for explanations and solutions. These may be partial and imperfect, but they are more satisfactory than the alternatives.

So here is what I believe, without being able to prove it. If there are any answers to life's greatest questions, or if there are other questions that we should be asking instead, it is science that will provide them.



Broadcasting House
Sunday, January 9. 0900-1000

"Fantastically stimulating...Once you start, you can't stop thinking about that question." — Broadcasting House, BBC Radio 4

What do you believe to be true but cannot prove?   And what kind of problem does that pose to Scientists?  Professor Richard Dawkins joins us for that and we invite your thoughts on the subject. [click here for full transcript]

[Fi Glover, Broadcasting House, BBC Radio 4:] "We'd like you to stretch your brain this morning. 'What do you believe to be true but cannot prove?' This enormous query has been posed by the big thinkers website edge.org...And so far 100s of big thinkers have been answering this question."...

"It is a fantastically stimulating question isn't it? Although we might believe that science acts as a bastion of provable theories in a world that contains many mysteries, as you've just said this is not always the case. Scientists start out with theories and seek to build the proof around them. And that's the excitement of science often."

[Professor Richard Dawkins:] "Very much so. It would be entirely wrong to suggest that science is something that knows everything already. Science proceeds by having hunches, by making guesses, by having hypotheses, sometimes inspired by poetic thoughts, by aesthetic thoughts even, and then science goes about trying to demonstrate it experimentally or observationally. And that's the beauty of science that it has this imaginative stage but then it goes on to the proving stage, the demonstrating stage."

[BBC Radio 4:] Once you start, you can’t stop thinking about that question. It’s like the crack cocaine of the thinking world.



Scientists dream too - imagine that
Opinion —2005-01-08

by Julia Baird

We all have hunches, beliefs we can barely explain, or even simply hopes or dreams that some might think of as crazy, or scoff at as irrational, or unproven. But that's just the point of hunches, isn't it? Sometimes we're even right. Diderot called the gift of those who guess the truth before being able to prove it the 'esprit de divination'.
hich is why the latest "grand question" posed by the publisher of the scientific website edge.org, John Brockman, to 120 scientists and thinkers, is so wonderful: "What do you believe is true even though you cannot prove it?"

The answers, which spill to 60,000 words and were published this week, provide a fascinating insight into conjecture - and the power of imagination. Even the empirically driven, it seems, have their own leaps of faith.

Many scientists and researchers believe in the unseen and the unknown - in true love, the power of a child's mind, in the existence of aliens.



The Guardian Friday G2Inside Story
FAITH V FACT
07.01.05 — pp 6-7

To celebrate the new year, online magazine Edge asked some leading thinkers a simple question: What do you believe but cannot prove? Here is a selection of their responses...



January 6, 2003 SOCIETA ' E CULTURA; Pg. 23
Singolare inchiesta in usa di un sito internet. Ha chiesto ai signori della ricerca di svelare i loro "atti di fede". Sono arrivate le risposte piu' imprevedibili i fantasmi dello scienziato: non ho prove ma ci credo.

By Sindici Fabio

E' il caso del cosmologo Martin Rees di Cambridge. E' convinto che la vita intelligente esista solo sulla Terra, ma che, in un futuro indeterminato, si espandera' in tutta la galassia. La mancanza della prova fa spuntare teorie originalissime, come quella della matematica Verena Huber-Dyson, che sostiene il ""potere creativo della noia"". Judith Rich Harris, psicologa dello sviluppo, e' persuasa che sono tre, e non due, i processi di selezione relativi all'evoluzione umana. I primi due sono noti: la selezione naturale, che si basa sulla capacita' di adattamento; e la selezione sessuale, sulla capacita' di riprodursi. Harris aggiunge un fattore inaspettato: la bellezza. Che aiuterebbe la sopravvivenza, specie nei primi giorni di esistenza di un bambino.



SCIENCE'S SCOURGE OF BELIEVERS DECLARES HIS FAITH IN DARWIN
By Roger Highfield, Science Editor

(Filed: 05/01/2005) [free registration required]


Prof Richard Dawkins, the scourge of those who maintain their belief in a god, has declared that he, too, holds a belief that cannot yet be proved.

In a recent letter to a national newspaper, Prof Dawkins said believers might now be disillusioned with an omnipotent being who had just drowned tens of thousands of innocent people in Asia. "My naive guess was that believers might be feeling more inclined to curse their god than pray to him."

Now the Oxford University evolutionary biologist is among the 117 scientists, futurists and other creative thinkers who have responded to the question: "What do you believe is true even though you cannot prove it?" posed by John Brockman, a New York-based literary agent and publisher of Edge, a website devoted to science.


What Do You Believe Even If You Can't Prove It?
Posted by timothy on Wednesday January 05, @12:57PM
from the that-she-is-out-there dept.

An anonymous reader writes "That's what online magazine The Edge - the World Question Center asked over 120 scientists, futurists, and other interesting minds. Their answers are sometimes short and to the point (Bruce Sterling: 'We're in for climatic mayhem'), often long and involved; they cover everything from the existence of God to the nature of black holes. What do you believe, even though you can't prove it?
 



ARTICLES OF NOTE

What do you believe to be true, even though you can’t prove it? John Brockman asked over a hundred scientists and intellectuals... more» ... Edge



SPACE WITHOUT TIME, TIME WITHOUT REST
John Brockman's Question for the Republic of Wisdom

(Woran glauben Sie, ohne es beweisen zu können?)
By Christian Schwägerl,
January 4, 2005

It can be more thrilling to start the New Year with a good question than with a good intention. That's what John Brockman is doing for the eight time in a row. The New York based literary agent and pionieer of the "Third culture", in which the natural sciences and the humanities are meant to fuse, has posed a question to researchers and other scientific literati in 1998 for the first time. Then the question was: "Which questions do you ask youself?". In the meantime, Brockman has set up a World Question Center" at the internet site of his intellectual foundation Edge (www.edge.org). It is no accident that this years question refers to believes after a year in which America has shown its strong believing side. But what is it the reason-driven members of the Third Culture believe in? We supply a small selection of answers to this year's question."



GOD (OR NOT), PHYSICS AND, OF COURSE, LOVE: SCIENTISTS TAKE A LEAP
Fourteen scientists ponder everything from string theory to true love.
January 4, 2005 [free registration required]

"What do you believe is true even though you cannot prove it?"

This was the question posed to scientists, futurists and other creative thinkers by John Brockman, a literary agent and publisher of Edge, a Web site devoted to science. The site asks a new question at the end of each year. Here are excerpts from the responses, to be posted Tuesday at www.edge.org.


|
(dall'inserto culturale del Sole 24 Ore - domenica 2 gennaio 2005)
January 2, 2005

Fate largo alle «beautiful minds»
di Roberto Casati

L’interesse dei mezzi di comunicazione per questo tipo di figure intellettuali ha preso tre vie principali. La prima è la più evidente ma in un certo senso anche la più sorprendente; si tratta della pubblicazione di opere di divulgazione scientifica di altissimo livello, affidata non a divulgatori di professione ma a scienziati cui si chiede di presentare al grande pubblico il loro lavoro, senza fare troppe concessioni. Nata da un’idea di un agente letterario, John Brockman, ha permesso di far venire alla luce best-seller come L’istinto del linguaggio di S. Pinker, Armi acciaio e malattie di J. Diamond, I vestiti nuovi dell'imperatore di R. Penrose, L’universo elegante di B. Greene. Hanno sorpreso sia la qualità della scrittura che le vendite; evidentemente c'era un bisogno di opere di alto livello che le case editrici hanno saputo individuare.

La terza cultura di John Brockman
di Armando Massarenti

Domanda intrigantissima, cui hanno già risposto, tra gli altri, intellettuali come John Barrow, Paul Davies, Richard Dawkins, Stanislas Dehaene, Daniel C. Dennett, Keith Devlin, Howard Gardner, Freeman Dyson, Leon Lederman, Janna Levin, Joseph LeDoux, Benoit Mandelbrot, Martin Rees, Steven Pinker, Carlo Rovelli, Craig Venter. I loro interventi saranno resi disponibili sul sito nei prossimi giorni. Il dibattito sarà seguito a livello internazionale, con anticipazioni in contemporanea di diversi interventi, dal «New York Times», dal «Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung» e, per l’Italia, dal Domenicale
del Sole-24 Ore.

Una nuova figura di intellettuale pubblico è venuta alla luce, e vi è un luogo in cui essa può esprimersi con grande libertà. Siamo certi che anche nel nostro Paese, più di quanto hanno fatto finora, non saranno in pochi a voler approfittare di questa opportunità.


"The greatest virtual research university in the world."
— Denis Dutton, Editor, Arts & Letters Daily


"A stellar cast of thinkers tackles the really big questions facing scientists."
— by Paul Nettleton,The Guardian


"It is like having a front-row seat at the ultimate scientific seminar series."
— Matin Durani (Deputy Editor, Physics World)


CONTRIBUTORS

IAN McEWAN
Novelist; Author, Saturday

What I believe but cannot prove is that no part of my consciousness will survive my death. I exclude the fact that I will linger, fadingly, in the thoughts of others, or that aspects of my consciousness will survive in writing, or in the positioning of a planted tree or a dent in my old car. I suspect that many contributors to Edge will take this premise as a given—true but not significant. However, it divides the world crucially, and much damage has been done to thought as well as to persons, by those who are certain that there is a life, a better, more important life, elsewhere. That this span is brief, that consciousness is an accidental gift of blind processes, makes our existence all the more precious and our responsibilities for it all the more profound.


ROBERT TRIVERS
Evolutionary biologist, Rutgers University; Author, Natural Selection and Social Theory

Think true, cannot prove.

I believe that deceit and self deception play a disproportinate role in human-generated disasters, including misguided wars, international affairs more gnerally, the collapse of civilizations, and state affairs, including disastrous social, political and economic policies and miscarriages of justice.

I believe deceit and self deception play an important role in the relative
underdevelopment of the social sciences.

I believe that processes of self deception are important in limiting the
achievement of individuals.


IAN WILMUT
Biologist; Cloning Researcher; Roslin Institute, Edinburgh; Coauthor, The Second Creation

I believe that it is possible to change adult cells from one phenotype to another.

The birth of Dolly provided the insight behind this belief. She was the first adult cloned from another adult, of any species. Previously biologists had believed that the mechanisms that direct the formation of all of the different tissues that make up an adult were so complex and so rigidly fixed that they could not be reversed. Her birth demonstrated that the mechanisms that were active in the nucleus transferred from the mammary epithelial cell could be reversed by unknown factors in the recipient unfertilised egg.

We take for-granted the process by which the single cell embryo at fertilisation gives rise to all of the many tissues of an adult. As almost all of those cells have the same genetic information, the changes must be brought about by sequential differences in function of the genes. An impression is beginning to emerge of the factors that bring about these sequential changes, although much more remains to be learned. In particular, very little is known of the hierarchy of influence of the several regulatory factors.

I believe that a greater understanding of these mechanisms will allow us to cause cells from one tissue to form another different tissue. We have long been accustomed to the idea that cells are influenced by their external environment and use specific methods of tissue culture to control their function in the laboratory. The new research introduces an additional dimension. We will learn how to increase the activity of the intracellular factors to achieve our aims. This may be by direct introduction of the proteins, use of small molecule drugs to modulate expression of regulatory genes or transient expression of those key genes. We have much to learn about the optimal approach to „transdifferentiation¾. Is it necessary to reverse the process of differentiation to an early stage in the same pathway? Or is it possible to achieve change directly from one path to another? The answer may vary from one tissue to another.

The medical implications will be profound. Cells of specific tissues will be available from patients either for research to understand genetic differences or for their therapy, This is not to suggest that we cease research on embryo stem cells because knowledge from their use will be essential to develop the new approaches that I envisage. Conversely, understanding of the mechanisms of reprogramming cells will create important new opportunities in the use of embryo stem cells. As many options as possible should be available to the researcher and clinician.

It is my belief that, ultimately, this approach to tissue formation will be the greatest inheritance of the Dolly experiment. The ramifications are far wider than those that involve the production of cloned offspring.


ANTON ZEILINGER

What I believe but cannot prove is that quantum physics teaches us to abandon the distinction between information and reality.

The fundamental reason why I believe in this is that it is impossible to make an operational distinction between reality and information. In other words, whenever we make any statement about the world, about any object, about any feature of any object, we always make statements about the information we have. And, whenever we make scientific predictions we make statements about information we possibly attain in the future. So one might be tempted to believe that everything is just information. The danger there is solipsism and subjectivism. But we know, even as we cannot prove it, that there is reality out there. For me the strongest argument for a reality independent of us is the randomness of the individual quantum event, like the decay of a radioactive atom. There is no hidden reason why a given atom decays at the very instant it does so.

So if reality exists and if we will never be able to make an operational distinction between reality and information, the hypothesis suggests itself that reality and information are the same. We need a new concept which encompasses both. In a sense, reality and information are the two sides of the same coin.

I feel that this is the message of the quantum. It is the natural extension of the Copenhagen interpretation. Once you adopt the notion that reality and information are the same all quantum paradoxes and puzzles disappear, like the measurement problem or Schrödinger's cat. Yet the price to pay is high. If my hypothesis is true, many questions become meaningless. There is no sense then to ask, what is "really" going on out there. Schrödinger's cat is neither dead nor alive unless we obtain information about her state.

By the way, I also believe that some day all computers will be quantum computers. The reason I believe this is the ongoing miniaturization of electronic components. And, certainly, we will learn to overcome decoherence. We will learn how to observe quantum phenomena outside the shielded environment of laboratories. I hope I will still be alive when this happens.


JARED DIAMOND
Biologist; Geographer, UCLA; Author, Collapse

When did humans complete their expansion around the world? I'm convinced, but can't yet prove, that humans first reached the continents of North America, South America, and Australia only very recently, at or near the end of the last Ice Age. Specifically, I'm convinced that they reached North America around 14,000 years ago, South America around 13,500 years ago, and Australia and New Guinea around 46, 000 years ago; and that humans were then responsible for the extinctions of most of the big animals of those continents within a few centuries of those dates; and that scientists will accept this conclusion sooner and less reluctantly for Australia and New Guinea than for North and South America.

Background to my conjecture is that there are now hundreds of thousands of sites with undisputed evidence of human presence dating back to millions of years ago in Africa, Europe, and Asia, but none with even disputed evidence of human presence over 100,000 years ago in the Americas and Australia. In the Americas, undisputed evidence suddenly appears in all the lower 48 U.S. states around 14,000 years ago, at numerous South American sites soon thereafter, and at hundreds of Australian sites between 46,000 and 14,000 years ago. Evidence of most of the former big mammals of those continents—e.g., elephants and lions and giant ground sloths in the Americas, giant kangaroos and one-ton Komodo dragons in Australia—disappears within a few centuries of those dates. The transparent conclusion: people arrived then, quickly filled up those continents, and easily killed off their big animals that had never seen humans and that let humans walk up to them, as Galapagos and Antarctica animals still do today.

But some Australian archaeologists, and many American archaeologists, resist this obvious conclusion, for several reasons. Archaeologists try hard to find convincing earlier sites, because it would be a dramatic discovery. Every year, discoveries of many purportedly older sites are announced, then to be forgotten. As the supporting evidence dissolves or remains disputed, we're now in a steady state of new claims and vanishing old claims, like a hydra constantly sprouting new heads. There are still a few sites known for the Americas with evidence of human butchering of the extinct big animals, and none known for Australia and New Guinea—but one expects to find very few sites anyway, among all the sites of natural deaths for hundreds of thousands of years, if the hunting was all finished locally (because the prey became extinct) within a few decades. American archaeologists are especially persistent in their quest for pre-14,000 sites—perhaps because secured dating requires use of multiple dating techniques (not just radiocarbon), but American archaeologists distrust alternatives to radiocarbon (discovered by U.S. scientists) because the alternative dating techniques were discovered by Australian scientists.

Every year, beginning graduate students in archaeology and paleontology, working in Africa or Europe or Asia, go out and discover undisputed new sites with ancient human presence. Every year, new such discoveries are announced to the other three continents, but none has ever met the requirements of evidence accepted for Africa, Europe, or Asia. The big animals of the latter three continents survive, because they had millions of years to learn fear of human hunters with very slowly evolving skills; most big animals of the former three continents didn't survive, because they had the misfortune that their first encounter with humans was a sudden one, with fully modern skilled hunters.

To me, the case is already proved. How many more decades of unconvincing claims will it take to convince the holdouts among my colleagues? I don't know. It makes better newspaper headlines to report "Wow!! New discovery overturns the established paradigm of American archaeology!!" than to report, "Ho hum, yet another reportedly paradigm-overturning discovery fails to hold up."


DANIEL GOLEMAN
Psychologist; Author, Emotional Intelligence

I believe, but cannot prove, that today's children are unintended victims of economic and technological progress.

To be sure, greater wealth and advanced technology offers all of us better lives in many ways. Yet these unstoppable forces seem to have had some disastrous results in how they have been transforming childhood. Even as children's IQs are on a steady march upward over the last century, the last three decades have seen a major drop in children's most basic social and emotional skills—the very abilities that would make them effective workers and leaders, parents and spouses, and members of the community.

Of course there are always individual exceptions—children who grow up to be outstanding human beings. But the Bell Curve for social and emotional abilities seems to be sliding in the wrong direction. The most compelling data comes from a random national sample of more than 3,000 American children ages seven to sixteen—chosen to represent the entire nation—rated by their parents and teachers, adults who know them well. First done in the early 1970s, and then roughly fifteen years later, in the mid-80s, and again in the late 1990s, the results showed a startling decline.

The most precipitous drop occurred between the first and second cohorts: American children were more withdrawn, sulky and unhappy, anxious and depressed, impulsive and unable to concentrate, delinquent and aggressive. Between the early 1970s and the mid-80s, they did more poorly on 42 indicators, better on none. In the late 1990s, scores crept back up a bit, but were nowhere near as high as they had been on the first round, in the early 70s.

That's the data. What I believe, but can't prove, is that this decline is due in large part to economic and technological forces. For one, the ratcheting upward of global competition means that over the last two decades or so each generation of parents has had to work longer to maintain the same standard of living that their own parents had—virtually every family has two working parents today, while 50 years ago the norm was only one. It's not that today's parents love their children any less, but that they have less free time to spend with them than was true in their parents' day.

Increasing mobility means that fewer children live in the same neighborhood as their extended families—and so no longer have surrogate parenting from close relatives. Day care can be excellent, particularly for children of privileged families, but too often means less well-to-do children get too little caring attention in their day.

For the middle class, childhood has become overly organized, a tight schedule of dance or piano lessons and soccer games, children shuttled from one adult-run activity to another. This has eroded the free time in which children can play together on their own, in their own way.

When it comes to learning social and emotional skills, I suspect the lessoning of open time with family, relatives and other children translates into a loss of the very activities that have traditionally allowed the natural transmission of these skills.

Then there's the technological factor. Today's children spend more time than ever in human history alone, staring at a video monitor. That amounts to a natural experiment in childrearing on an unprecedented scale. While this may mean children as adults will be more at ease with their computers, I doubt it does anything but de-skill them when it comes to relating to each other person-to-person.

We know that the prefrontal-limbic neural circuitry crucial for social and emotional abilities is the last part of the human brain to become anatomically mature, not finishing this developmental task until the mid-20s. During that window, children's life abilities become set as neurons come online and are interconnected for better or for worse. A child's experiences dictate how those connections are made.

A smart strategy for helping every child get the right social and emotional skill-building would be to bring such lessons into the classroom rather than leaving it to chance. My hunch, which I can't prove, is that this offers the best way to keep children from paying of modern life for us all.


MARTI HEARST
Computer Scientist, UC Berkeley, School of Information Management & Systems

The Search Problem is solvable.

Advances in computational linguistics and user interface design will eventually enable people to find answers to any question they have, so long as the answer is encoded in textual form and stored in a publicly accessible location. Advances in reasoning systems will to a limited degree be able to draw inferences in order to find answers that are not explicitly present in the existing documents.

There have been several recent developments that prompt me to make this claim. First, computational linguistics (also known as natural language processing or language engineering) has made great leaps forward in the last decade, due primarily to advances stemming from the availability of huge text collections, from which statistics can be derived. Today's automatic language translation systems, for example, are now derived almost entirely from statistical patterns extracted from text collections. They now work as well as hand-engineered systems, and promise to continue to improve. As another example, recent government-sponsored research in the area of (simple) question answering has produced a radical leap forward in the quality of results in this arena.

Of course, another important development is the rise of the Web and its most voracious consumer, the internet search engine. It is common knowledge that search engines make use of information associated with link structure to improve results rankings. But search engine companies also have enormous, albeit somewhat impoverished, repositories of information about how people ask for information. This behavioral information can be used to build better search tools. For example, some spelling correction algorithms make use of how people have corrected erroneous spellings in the past, by observing pairs of queries that occur one after the next. The second query is assumed to be the correction, if it is sufficiently similar to the first. Patterns are then derived that convert from different types of misspellings to their corrections.

Another development in the field of computational linguistics is the manual creation of enormous lexical ontologies, which are then used to build axioms and rules about language use. These modern ontologies, unlike their predecessors, are of a large enough scale and simple enough design to be useful, although this work is in the early stages. There are also many attempts to build such ontologies automatically from large text collections; the most promising approach seems to be to combine the automated and the manual approaches.

As a side note, I am skeptical about the hype surrounding the Semantic Web—it is very difficult to characterize concepts in a systematic way, and even more so to force all the world's creators of information to conform to one schema. Automated analysis tools adapt to what people really do, rather than try to force people's expressions of information to conform to a standard.

Finally, advances in user interface design are key to producing better search results. The search field has learned an enormous amount in the ten years since the Web became a major presence in society, but as is often noted in the field, the interface itself hasn't changed much: after all this time, we still type words into a blank box and then select from a list of results. Experience shows that a search interface has to be a qualitative leap better than the standard in order to entice people to switch. I believe headway will be made in this area, most likely occurring in tandem with advances in natural language analysis.

It may well be the case that advances in audio, image, and video processing will keep pace with those of language analysis, thus making possible the answering of questions that can be answered by information stored in graphical and audio form. However, my expertise does not extend to these fields, so I will not make a claim about this.


TIMOTHY TAYLOR
Archaeologist, University of Bradford; Author, The Buried Soul

"All your life you live so close to the truth, it becomes a permanent blur in the corner of your eye, and when something nudges it into outline it is like being ambushed by a grotesque" wrote Tom Stoppard in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. Something I believe is true even though I cannot prove it, is that both cannibalism and slavery were prevalent in human prehistory. Neither belief commands specialist academic consensus and each phenomenon remains highly controversial, their empirical "signatures" in the archaeological record being ambiguous and fugitive.

Truth and belief are uncomfortable words in scholarship. It is possible to define as true only those things that can be proved by certain agreed criteria. In general, science does not believe in truth or, more precisely, science does not believe in belief. Understanding is understood as the best fit to the data under the current limits (both instrumental and philosophical) of observation. If science fetishized truth, it would be religion, which it is not. However, it is clear that under the conditions that Thomas Kuhn designated as " normal science" (as opposed to the intellectual ferment of paradigm shifts) most scholars are involved in supporting what is, in effect, a religion. Their best guesses become fossilized as a status quo, and the status quo becomes an item of faith. So when a scientist tells you that "the truth is . . .", it is time to walk away. Better to find a priest.

Until recently, most archaeologists would be inclined to say that the truths about cannibalism and about slavery are that each has been sharply historically limited and that each is a more or less aberrant cultural phenomenon. The reason for such a belief is that it is only in a small number of cases that either thing be proved beyond reasonable doubt. But I see the problem in the starting point.

If we shift our background expectations and say that coercing a living person to do one's bidding is perhaps the very first form of property ownership ("the slavery latent in the family" to use Marx and Engels' telling phrase), and that eating the dead (as very many wild vertebrates do) makes sense in nutritional and competitive terms, then the archaeologist's duty is to empirically establish those times and places where slavery and cannibalism had ceased to exist. The only reason we have hitherto insisted on proof-positive rather than proof-negative in relation to these phenomena is that both seem grotesque to us now, and we have rather a high opinion of our natural civility. This is the most interesting point, and the focus of my attention is how culturally-elaborated mechanisms of restraint and inter-personal respect emerged and allowed such refined scruples.


RANDOLPH NESSE, M.D.
Psychiatrist, University of Michigan; Coauthor, Why We Get Sick

I can't prove it, but I am pretty sure that people gain a selective advantage from believing in things they can't prove. I am dead serious about this. People who are sometimes consumed by false beliefs do better than those who insist on evidence before they believe and act. People who are sometimes swept away by emotions do better in life than those who calculate every move. These advantages have, I believe, shaped mental capacities for intense emotion and passionate beliefs because they give a selective advantage in certain situations.

I am not advocating for irrationality or extreme emotionality. Many, perhaps even most problems of individuals and groups arise from actions based on passion. The Greek initiators and Enlightenment implementers recognized correctly that the world would be better off if reason displaced superstition and crude emotion. I have no interest in going back on that road and fundamentalism remains a severe threat to enlightened civilization. I am arguing, however, that if we want to understand these tendencies we need to quit dismissing them as defects and start considering how they came to exist.

I came to this belief from seeing psychiatric patients while studying game theory and evolutionary biology. Many patients are consumed by fears, sadness, and other emotions they find painful and senseless. Others are crippled by grandiose fantasies or bizarre beliefs. On the other side are those with obsessive compulsive personality. They do not have obsessive compulsive disorder; they do not wash and count all day. They have obsessive compulsive personality characterized by hyper-rationality. They are mystified by other people's emotional outbursts. They do their duty and expect others will too. They are often disappointed in this, giving rise to frequent resentment if not anger. They trade favors according to the rules, and they can't fathom genuine generosity or spiteful hatred.

People who lack passions suffer several disadvantages. When social life results in situations that can be mapped onto game theory, regular predictable behavior is a strategy inferior to allocating actions randomly among the options. The angry person who might seek spiteful revenge is a force to be reckoned with, while a sensible opponent can be easily dealt with. The passionate lover sweeps away a superior but all too practical offer of marriage.

It is harder to explain the disadvantages suffered by people who lack a capacity for faith, but consider the outcomes for those who wait for proof before acting, compared to the those who act on confident conviction. The great things in life are done by people who go ahead when it seems senseless to others. Usually they fail, but sometimes they succeed.

Like nearly every other trait, tendencies for passionate emotions and irrational convictions are most advantageous in some middle range. The optimum for modern life seems to me to be quite a ways towards the rational side of the median, but there are advantages and disadvantages at every point along the spectrum. Making human life better requires that we understand these capacities, and to do that we must seek their origins and functions. I cannot prove this is true, but I believe it is. This belief spurs my search for evidence which will either strengthen my conviction or, if I can discipline my mind sufficiently, convince me that it is false.


STEPHEN H. SCHNEIDER
Biologist; Climatologist, Stanford University; Author, Laboratory Earth

I believe that global warming is both a real phenomenon and at least partially a result of human activities such as dumping greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. In fact I can "prove it"—or can I?—that is the real question.

What is "proof"? In the strict old fashioned frequentist statistical belief system data is direct observations of the hypothesized phenomena—temperature increases in my case—and when you get enough of it to produce frequency distributions you can assign objective probabilities to cause and effect hypotheses. But what if the events cannot be precisely measured, or worse, apply to future events like the warming of the late 21st century? Then a frequentist interpretation of " proof" is impossible in principle before the fact, and we instead become subjectivists—Bayesian updaters as some statisticians like to refer to it. In this case we use frequency data and all other data relevant to components of our analysis to form a "prior"—a belief about likelihood of an event or process. Then as we learn more we update our belief—an "a posteriori probability" as the Bayesians call it—or simply a revised prior.

It is my strong belief that there is an overwhelming amount of evidence to form a subjective prior with high confidence that the earth's surface has warmed over the past century about 0.7 deg C or so and that at least half of the more recent warming is traceable to human pressures. Is this " proof" of anthropogenic (i.e., we did it) warming? Not in the strict sense of a criminal trial with "beyond a reasonable doubt" criterion—say a 99% objective probability. But in the sense of a civil proceeding, where " preponderance of evidence" is the standard and a likelihood much greater than 50% is adequate to have a case, then global warming is indeed already " proved". So as a frequentist I concede I believe it is real without full "proof", but as a subjectivist, my reading of the many lines of evidence puts global warming well over the minimum thresholds of belief to assert it is already "proved".


BRIAN GOODWIN
Biologist, Schumacher College, Devon, UK; Author,
How The Leopard Changed Its Spots

Nature Is Culture.

I believe that nature and culture can now be understood as one unified process, not two distinct domains separated by some property of humans such as written or spoken language, consciousness, or ethics. Although there is no proof of this, and no consensus in the scientific community or in the humanities, the revelations of the past few years provide a foundation for both empirical and conceptual work that I believe will lead to a coherent, unified perspective on the process in which we and nature are engaged. This is not a take-over of the humanities by science, but a genuine fusion of the two based on clear articulations of basic concepts such as meaning and wholeness in natural and cultural processes, with implications for scientific studies, their applications in technology and their expression in the arts.

For me this vision has arisen primarily through developments in biology, which occupies the middle ground between culture and the physical world. The key conceptual changes have arisen from complexity theory through detailed studies of the networks of interactions between components within organisms, and between them in ecosystems. When the genome projects made it clear that we are unable to make sense of the information in DNA, attention necessarily shifted to understanding how organisms use this in making themselves with forms that allow them to survive and reproduce in particular habitats. The focus shifted from the hereditary material to its organised context, the living cell, so that organisms as agencies with a distinctive kind of organisation returned to the biological foreground.

Examination of the self-referential networks that regulate gene activities in organisms, that carry out the diverse functions and constructions within cells through protein-protein interactions (the proteome), and the sequences of metabolic transformations that make up the metabolome, have revealed that they all have distinctive properties of self-similar, fractal structure governed by power-law relationships. These properties are similar to the structure of languages, which are also self-referential networks described by power-laws, as discovered years ago by G.K. Zipf. A conclusion is that organisms use proto-languages to make sense of both their inherited history (written in DNA and its molecular modifications) and their external contexts (the environment) in the process of making themselves as functional agencies. Organisms thus become participants in cultures with histories that have meaning, expressed in the forms (morphologies and behaviours) distinctive to their species. This is of course embodied or tacit meaning, which cognitive scientists now recognise as primary in human culture also.

Understanding species as cultures that have experienced 3.7 billion years of adaptive evolution on earth makes it clear that they are repositories of meaningful knowledge and experience about effective living that we urgently need to learn about in human culture. Here is a source of deep wisdom about living in participation with others that is energy and resource efficient, that recycles everything, produces forms that are simultaneously functional and beautiful, and is continuously innovative and creative. We can now proceed with a holistic science that is unified with the arts and humanities and has at its foundation the principles that arise from a naturalistic ethic based on an extended science that includes qualities as well as quantities within the domain of knowledge.

There is plenty of work to do in articulating this unified perspective, from detailed empirical studies of the ways in which organisms achieve their states of coherence and adaptability to the application of these principles in the organic design of all human artefacts, from energy-generating devices and communication systems to cars and factories. The goal is to make human culture as integrated with natural process as the rest of the living realm so that we enhance the quality of the planet instead of degrading it. This will require a rethinking of evolution in terms of the intrinsic agency with meaning that is embodied in the life cycles of different species, understood as natural cultures. Integrating biology and culture with physical principles will be something of a challenge, but there are already many indications of how this can be achieved, without losing the thread of language and meaning that runs through living nature. The emphasis on wholeness that lies at the heart of quantum mechanics and its extensions in quantum gravity, together with the subtle order revealed as quantum coherence, is already stimulating a rethinking of the nature of wholeness, coherence and robust adaptability in organisms as well as quality of life in cultures. Furthermore, the self-similar, fractal patterns that arise in physical systems during phase transitions, when new order is coming into being, have the same characteristics as the patterns observed in organismic and cultural networks involved in generating order and meaning. The unified vision of a creative and meaningful cosmic process seems to be on the agenda as a replacement for the meaningless mechanical cosmos that has dominated Western scientific thought and cultural life for a few hundred years.


TERRENCE SEJNOWSKI
Computational Neuroscientist, Howard Hughes Medical Institute; Coauthor, The Computational Brain

How do we remember the past? There are many answers to this question, depending on whether you are an historian, artist or scientist. As a scientist I have wanted to know where in the brain memories are stored and how they are stored¦the genetic and neural mechanisms. Although neuroscientists have made tremendous progress in uncovering neural mechanisms for learning, I believe, but cannot prove, that we are all looking in the wrong place for long-term memory.

I have been puzzled by my ability to remember my childhood, despite the fact that most of the molecules in my body today are not the same ones I had as a child¦in particular, the molecules that make up my brain are constantly turning over, being replaced with newly minted molecules. Perhaps memories only seem to be stable. Rehearsal strengthens memories, and can even alter them. However, I have detailed memories of specific places where I lived 50 years ago that I doubt I ever rehearsed but can be easily verified, so the stability of long-term memories is a real problem.

Textbooks in neuroscience, including one that I coauthored, say that memories are stored at synapses between neurons in the brain, of which there are many. In neural network models of memory, information can be stored by selectively altering the strengths of the synapses, and "spike-time dependent plasticity" at synapses in the cerebral cortex has been found with these properties. This is a hot area of research, but all we need to know here is that patterns of neural activity can indeed modify a lot of molecular machinery inside a neuron.

If memories are stored as changes to molecules inside cells, which are constantly being replaced, how can a memory remain stable over 50 years? My hunch is that everyone is looking in the wrong place: that the substrate of really old memories is located not inside cells, but outside cells, in the extracellular space. The space between cells is not empty, but filled with a matrix of tough material that is difficult to dissolve and turns over very slowly if at all. The extracellular matrix connects cells and maintains the shape of the cell mass. This is why scars on your body haven't changed much after decades of sloughing off skin cells.

My intuition is based on a set of classic experiments on the neuromuscular junction between a motor neuron and a muscle cell, a giant synapse that activates the muscle. The specialized extracellular matrix at the neuromuscular junction, called the basal lamina, consists of proteoglycans, glycoproteins, including collagen, and adhesion molecules such as laminin and fibronectin. If the nerve that activates a muscle is crushed, the nerve fiber grows back to the junction and forms a specialized nerve terminal ending. This occurs even if the muscle cell is also killed. The memory of the contact is preserved by the basal lamina at the junction. Similar material exists at synapses in the brain, which could permanently maintain overall connectivity despite the coming and going of molecules inside neurons.

How could we prove that the extracellular matrix really is responsible for long-term memories? One way to disprove it would be to disrupt the extracellular matrix and see if the memories remain. This can be done with enzymes or by knocking out one or more key molecules with techniques from molecular genetics. If I am right, then all of your memories¦what makes you a unique individual¦are contained in the endoskeleton that connects cells to each other. The intracellular machinery holds memories temporarily and decides what to permanently store in the matrix, perhaps while you are sleeping. It might be possible someday to stain this memory endoskeleton and see what memories look like.


ALEXANDER VILENKIN
Physicist; Institute of Cosmology, Tufts University

There are good reasons to believe that the universe is infinite.

If so, it contains an infinite number of regions of the same size as our observable region (which is 80 billion light years across). It follows from quantum mechanics that the number of distinct histories that could occur in any of these finite regions in a finite time (since the big bang) is finite. By history I mean not just the history of the civilization, but everything that happens, down to the atomic level. The number of possible histories is fantastically large (it has been estimated as 10 to the power 10 to the power 150), but the important point is that it is finite.

Thus, we have an infinite number of regions like ours and only a finite number of histories that can play out in them. It follows that every possible history will occur in an infinite number of regions. In particular, there should be an infinite number of regions with histories identical to ours. So, if you are not satisfied with the result of the presidential elections, don't despair: you candidate has won on an infinite number of earths.

This picture of the universe robs our civilization of any claim for uniqueness: countless identical civilizations are scattered in the infinite expanse of the cosmos. I find this rather depressing, but it is probably true.

Another thing that I believe to be true, but cannot prove, is that our part of the universe will eventually stop expanding and will recollapse to a big crunch. But this will happen no sooner than 20 billion years from now, and probably much later.


OLIVER MORTON
Writer; Contributing Editor, Wired, Newsweek International; Author, Mapping Mars.

I've always found belief a bit difficult; people tend to assume that I have rather strong beliefs, but I don't experience them in that way. As far as knowledge goes I'm a consumer, and sometimes a distributor, not a producer; most of what I believe to be true lies far beyond my capacity for proof, and I try to moderate the timbre of my belief accordingly. I know that almost all my beliefs are based on faith in people, and processes, and institutions, and their various capacities for correcting themselves when in error.

I think the same is true for most of us; those who can prove their beliefs in their field of expertise are still reliant on faith in others when it comes to other fields. To acknowledge this at all times is not possible—it would make every utterance tentative, encrust every concept with ceteris paribus clauses. But when faced with a question like this, the role of our faith in people and in social institutions has to be acknowledged. And it does no harm to acknowledge it now and then even when not faced with such a question, in order to reinforce the need to keep people, institutions and the processes of knowledge production held in helpful scrutiny.

Which I suppose means that, for me, the real question is what do I believe that I don't think anyone can prove. In answer I'd put forward the belief that there is a future much better, in terms of reduced human suffering and increased human potential, than the present, and that one part of what makes it better is a greater, subtler knowledge of the world at large.

If I can't prove this, why do I believe it? Because it's better than believing the alternative. Because it provides a context for social and political action that would otherwise be futile; in this, it is an exhortatory belief. It is also, in part, a self-serving one, in that it suggests that by trying to clarify and disseminate knowledge (a description that makes me sound like the chef at a soup kitchen) I'm doing something that helps the better future, if only a bit.

Besides the question of why, though, there's the question of how. And there the answer is "with difficulty". It is not an easy thing for me to make myself believe. But it is what I want to believe, and on my best days I do.


PAUL STEINHARDT
Albert Einstein Professor of Physics, Princeton University.

I believe that our universe is not accidental, but I cannot prove it.

Historically, most physicists have shared this point-of-view. For centuries, most of us have believed that the universe is governed by a simple set of physical laws that are the same everywhere and that these laws derive from a simple unified theory.

However, in the last few years, an increasing number of my most respected colleagues have become enamored with the anthropic principle—the idea that there is an enormous multiplicity of universes with widely different physical properties and the properties of our particular observable universe arise from pure accident. The only special feature of our universe is that its properties are compatible with the evolution of intelligent life. The change in attitude is motivated, in part, by the failure to date to find a unified theory that predicts our universe as the unique possibility. According to some recent calculations, the current best hope for a unified theory—superstring theory—allows an exponentially large number of different universes, most of which look nothing like our own. String theorists have turned to the anthropic principle for salvation.

Frankly, I view this as an act of desperation. I don't have much patience for the anthropic principle. I think the concept is, at heart, non-scientific. A proper scientific theory is based on testable assumptions and is judged by its predictive power. The anthropic principle makes an enormous number of assumptions—regarding the existence of multiple universes, a random creation process, probability distributions that determine the likelihood of different features, etc.—none of which are testable because they entail hypothetical regions of spacetime that are forever beyond the reach of observation. As for predictions, there are very few, if any. In the case of string theory, the principle is invoked only to explain known observations, not to predict new ones. (In other versions of the anthropic principle where predictions are made, the predictions have proven to be wrong. Some physicists cite the recent evidence for a cosmological constant as having anticipated by anthropic argument; however, the observed value does not agree with the anthropically predicted value.)

I find the desperation especially unwarranted since I see no evidence that our universe arose by a random process. Quite the contrary, recent observations and experiments suggest that our universe is extremely simple. The distribution of matter and energy is remarkably uniform. The hierarchy of complex structures ranging from galaxy clusters to subnuclear particles can all be described in terms of a few dozen elementary constituents and less than a handful of forces, all related by simple symmetries. A simple universe demands a simple explanation. Why do we need to postulate an infinite number of universes with all sorts of different properties just to explain our one?

Of course, my colleagues and I are anxious for further reductionism. But I view the current failure of string theory to find a unique universe simply as a sign that our understanding of string theory is still immature (or perhaps that string theory is wrong). Decades from now, I hope that physicists will be pursuing once again their dreams of a truly scientific "final theory" and will look back at the current anthropic craze as millennial madness.


ELLEN WINNER
Psychologist, Boston College; Author, Gifted Children

Sometimes our folk theories are correct: Parents do shape their children.

According to our folk theories of child development, parents are a major and inescapable influence on their children. Most people believe that how parents treat their children, as well as the values parents impart, leaves a strong and indelible imprint. Yet some psychologists have countered this view and have pointed to the finding that on paper and pencil personality tests, parents and children (especially parents and their adopted children) are often not mirrors of one another. Psychologists have not yet proven to skeptics that parents have a strong influence on their children, but I am convinced that we will be able to demonstrate this.

To begin with, producing children whose personality mirrors ones own is hardly the only way for parents to influence their children. We should not expect children to mirror their parents' personalities since they may often develop personalities in reaction to their parents. If you react against something, that something is having an influence on you. A depressed mother may engender a solicitous child. An impulsive parent may engender a careful child intent on not repeating the parent's errors.

Another problem with only using personality tests to examine parental influence is that these tests ignore political, social, and moral values and aesthetic tastes. I believe that children end up with much of their parents' values and tastes. We know that one of the best predictors of how people vote is how their parents vote. Parental values such as generosity, ambition, materialism, anti-materialism, etc have powerful effects on children. True, children may react against their parents' values. Materialistic parents have bred hippie children. But how many of these children eventually shed their hippie clothing and go to Wall Street? All too many.

If parents had no influence on their children, what is it that keeps psychoanalysts in business? Some children hate their parents. Some feel rage at their parents. Some feel their parents make them feel guilty. Some feel damaged by their parents. Some feel they are carrying on their parents' traditions. Some feel they owe their character strength to their parents. I fervently doubt that these feelings are merely epiphenomenal.

Judith Rich Harris, in The Nurture Assumption, took the position that parents have essentially no influence on their children besides passing on their genes and choosing their children's peer group. Steve Pinker said that the publication of this book was a landmark event in the history of psychology. I disagree with Harris' extreme claims and Pinker's endorsement.

To demonstrate parents' effects on their children, we will need better measures than quantitative short answer paper and pencil personality tests, and we will need to recognize that parents may influence their children to become like them or to become unlike them. One way to start is to develop a set of predictions about how parents shape their children (either to become like or unlike them), interview people about how they believe they have been shaped by their parents, and look for whether the patterns found fit the predictions. A stronger way is to look at adult adopted children, after the tumultuous adolescent years, and look at the extent to which these children either share their adoptive parents' values or have reacted against those values. Either way (sharing or reacting against), there is a powerful parental influence. The way to disprove my claim would be to show no systematic positive or negative relationships between parents and adoptive children. The belief that parents shape their children is part of our folk theory. Sometimes our folk theories are correct.


 

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John Brockman, Editor and Publisher
Russell Weinberger, Associate Publisher

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