IS YOUR DANGEROUS IDEA?"
Professor of Mathematical Physics,
Tulane University; Author, The
Physics of Immortality
I Hope the Standard Model is Wrong about Why There is More Matter
Standard Model of particle physics — a theory of all
forces and particles except
gravity and a theory that has survived all tests over the past
thirty years — says it is
possible to convert matter entirely into energy. Old-fashioned
nuclear physics allows
some matter to be converted into energy, but because nuclear
physics requires the number
of heavy particles like neutrons and protons, and light particles
like electrons, to be
separately conserved in nuclear reactions, only a small fraction
(less than 1%) of the mass
of the uranium or plutonium in an atomic bomb can be converted
into energy. The
Standard Model says that there is a way to convert all the mass
of ordinary matter into
energy; for example, it is in principle possible to convert the
proton and electron making
up a hydrogen atom entirely into energy. Particle physicists
have long known about this
possibility, but have considered it forever irrelevant to human
technology because the
energy required to convert matter into pure energy via this process
is at the very limit of
our most powerful accelerators (a trillion electron volts, or
am very much afraid that the particle physicists are wrong
about this Standard Model pure energy conversion process being
forever irrelevant to human affairs. I have recently
come to believe that the consistency of quantum field theory
requires that it should be
possible to convert up to 100 kilograms of ordinary matter into
pure energy via this
process using a device that could fit inside the trunk of a car,
a device that could be
manufactured in a small factory. Such a device would solve all
our energy problems —
we would not need fossil fuels — but 100 kilograms of energy
is the energy released by a
1,000-megaton nuclear bomb. If such a bomb can be manufactured
in a small factory,
then terrorists everywhere will eventually have such weapons.
I fear for the human race
if this comes to pass. I very hope I am wrong about the technological
feasibility of such a
Executive Director, Center for the Study of Language
and Information, Stanford; Author, The
are entirely alone
creatures capable of reflecting on their own existence
are a one-off, freak accident, existing for one brief
moment in the history of the universe. There may be
life elsewhere in the universe, but it does not have
self-reflective consciousness. There is no God; no
Intelligent Designer; no higher purpose to our lives.
I have never found this possibility particularly troubling,
but my experience has been that most people go to considerable
lengths to convince themselves that it is otherwise.
think that many people find the suggestion dangerous because
they see it as leading to a life devoid of meaning or moral
values. They see it as a suggestion full of despair, an idea
that makes our lives seem pointless. I believe that the opposite
is the case. As the product of that unique, freak accident,
finding ourselves able to reflect on and enjoy our conscious
existence, the very unlikeliness and uniqueness of our situation
surely makes us highly appreciative of what we have.
is not just important to us; it is literally everything we
have. That makes it, in human terms, the most precious thing
there is. That not only gives life meaning for us, something
to be respected and revered, but a strong moral code follows
fact that our existence has no purpose outside that existence
is completely irrelevant to the way we live our lives, since
we are inside our existence. The fact that our existence
has no purpose for the universe — whatever
that means — in no way means it has no purpose for
us. We must ask and answer questions about ourselves within
the framework of our existence as what we are.
Historian; Author, Project Orion
molecular biology without discovering the origins
predict we will reach a complete understanding of molecular
biology and molecular evolution, without ever discovering
the origins of life.
idea is dangerous, because it suggests a mystery that science
cannot explain. Or, it may be interpreted as confirmation
that life is merely the collective result of a long series
of incremental steps, and that it is impossible to draw a
precise distinction between life and non-life.
only thing of which I am sure," argued Samuel Butler
in 1880, "is that the distinction between the organic
and inorganic is arbitrary; that it is more coherent with
our other ideas, and therefore more acceptable, to start
with every molecule as a living thing, and then deduce death
as the breaking up of an association or corporation, than
to start with inanimate molecules and smuggle life into them. "
molecule a living thing? That's not even dangerous, it's
wrong! But where else can you draw the line?
Consultant in adaptive optics
and an adjunct professor of anthropology at the University of
There is something
new under the sun — us
Thucydides said that human nature was unchanging and thus predictable — but
he was probably wrong. If you consider natural selection
operating in fast-changing human environments, such stasis
is most unlikely. We know of a number of cases in which there
has been rapid adaptive change in humans; for example, most
of the malaria-defense mutations such as sickle cell are recent,
just a few thousand years old. The lactase mutation that
lets most adult Europeans digest ice cream is not much older.
There is no magic principle that restricts human evolutionary
change to disease defenses and dietary adaptations: everything
is up for grabs. Genes affecting personality, reproductive
strategies, cognition, are all able to change significantly
over few-millennia time scales if the environment favors such
— and this includes the new environments we have made
for ourselves, things like new ways of making a living and
new social structures. I would be astonished if the mix
of personality types favored among hunter-gatherers is "exactly" the
same as that favored among peasant farmers ruled by a Pharaoh. In
fact they might be fairly different.
There is evidence that such change has occurred. Henry Harpending
and I have, we think, made a strong case that natural selection
changed the Ashkenazi Jews over a thousand years or so, favoring
certain kinds of cognitive abilities and generating genetic
diseases as a side effect. Bruce Lahn's team has found
new variants of brain-development genes: one, ASPM, appears
to have risen to high frequency in Europe and the Middle East
in about six thousand years. We don't yet know what this
new variant does, but it certainly could affect the human psyche
— and if it does, Thucydides was wrong. We may
not be doomed to repeat the Sicilian expedition: on the other
hand, since we don't understand much yet about the changes
that have occurred, we might be even more doomed. But
at any rate, we have almost certainly changed. There is something
new under the sun — us.
This concept opens strange doors. If true, it means that
the people of Sumeria and Egypt's Old Kingdom were probably
fundamentally different from us: human nature has changed — some,
anyhow — over recorded history. Julian Jaynes, in The
Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, argued
that there was something qualitatively different about the
human mind in ancient civilization. On first reading, Breakdown seemed
one of the craziest books ever written, but Jaynes may have
been on to something.
If people a few thousand years ago thought and acted differently
because of biological differences, history is never going to
be the same.
Institute of Advanced Study, Author, Disturbing
will be thoroughly domesticated in the next fifty years
will be domesticated in the next fifty years as thoroughly
as computer technology was in the last fifty years.
means cheap and user-friendly tools and do-it-yourself kits,
for gardeners to design their own roses and orchids, and for
animal-breeders to design their own lizards and snakes. A new
art-form as creative as painting or cinema. It means biotech
games for children down to kindergarten age, like computer-games
but played with real eggs and seeds instead of with images
on a screen. Kids will grow up with an intimate feeling for
the organisms that they create. It means an explosion of biodiversity
as new ecologies are designed to fit into millions of local
niches all over the world. Urban and rural landscapes will
become more varied and more fertile.
are two severe and obvious dangers. First, smart kids and malicious
grown-ups will find ways to convert biotech tools to the manufacture
of lethal microbes. Second, ambitious parents will find ways
to apply biotech tools to the genetic modification of their
own babies. The great unanswered question is, whether we can
regulate domesticated biotechnology so that it can be applied
freely to animals and vegetables but not to microbes and humans.
Autism Research Centre, Cambridge University; Author, The
political system based on empathy
a political system based not on legal rules (systemizing) but
on empathy. Would this make the world a safer place?
UK Parliament, US Congress, Israeli Knesset, French National
Assembly, Italian Senato della Repubblica, Spanish Congreso
de los Diputados, — what do such political chambers have
in common? Existing political systems are based on two principles:
getting power through combat, and then creating/revising laws
and rules through combat.
is sometimes physical (toppling your opponent militarily),
sometimes economic (establishing a trade embargo, to starve
your opponent of resources), sometimes propaganda-based (waging
a media campaign to discredit your opponent's reputation),
and sometimes through voting-related activity (lobbying, forming
alliances, fighting to win votes in key seats), with the aim
to 'defeat' the opposition.
laws and rules is what you do once you are in power. These
might be constitutional rules, rules of precedence, judicial
rulings, statutes, or other laws or codes of practice. Politicians
battle for their rule-based proposal (which they hold to be
best) to win, and battle to defeat the opposition's rival proposal.
way of doing politics is based on "systemizing".
First you analyse the most effective form of combat (itself
a system) to win. If we do x, then we will obtain outcome y.
Then you adjust the legal code (another system). If we pass
law A, we will obtain outcome B.
colleagues and I have studied the essential difference between
how men and women think. Our studies suggest that (on average)
more men are systemizers, and more women are empathizers. Since
most political systems were set up by men, it may be no coincidence
that we have ended up with political chambers that are built
on the principles of systemizing.
here's the dangerous new idea. What would it be like if our
political chambers were based on the principles of empathizing?
It is dangerous because it would mean a revolution in how we
choose our politicians, how our political chambers govern,
and how our politicians think and behave. We have never given
such an alternative political process a chance. Might it be
better and safer than what we currently have? Since empathy
is about keeping in mind the thoughts and feelings of other
people (not just your own), and being sensitive to another
person's thoughts and feelings (not just riding rough-shod
over them), it is clearly incompatible with notions of "doing
battle with the opposition" and "defeating the opposition" in
order to win and hold on to power.
we select a party (and ultimately a national) leader based
on their "leadership" qualities. Can he or she make
decisions decisively? Can they do what is in the best interests
of the party, or the country, even if it means sacrificing
others to follow through on a decision? Can they ruthlessly
reshuffle their Cabinet and "cut people loose" if
they are no longer serving their interests? These are the qualities
of a strong systemizer.
we are not talking about whether that politician is male or
female. We are talking about how a politician (irrespective
of their sex) thinks and behaves.
have had endless examples of systemizing politicians unable
to resolve conflict. Empathizing politicians would perhaps
follow Mandela and De Klerk's examples, who sat down to try
to understand the other, to empathize with the other, even
if the other was defined as a terrorist. To do this involves
the empathic act of stepping into the other's shoes, and identifying
with their feelings.
details of a political system based on empathizing would need
a lot of working out, but we can imagine certain qualities
that would have no place.
would be politicians who are skilled orators but who simply
deliver monologues, standing on a platform, pointing forcefully
into the air to underline their insistence — even the
body language containing an implied threat of poking their
listener in the chest or the face - to win over an audience.
Gone too would be politicians who are so principled that they
are rigid and uncompromising.
we would elect politicians based on different qualities: politicians
who are good listeners, who ask questions of others instead
of assuming they know the right course of action. We would
instead have politicians who respond sensitively to another,
different point of view, and who can be flexible over where
the dialogue might lead. Instead of seeking to control and
dominate, our politicians would be seeking to support, enable,
of the philosophy of art, University of Canterbury, New Zealand,
editor of Philosophy and Literature and Arts & Letters
humanities have gone through the rise of Theory in the 1960s,
its firm hold on English and literature departments through
the 1970s and 80s, followed most recently by its much-touted
decline and death.
course, Theory (capitalization is an English department
affectation) never operated as a proper research program in
any scientific sense — with hypotheses validated (or
falsified) by experiment or accrued evidence. Theory was a
series of intellectual fashion statements, clever slogans and
postures, imported from France in the 60s, then developed out
of Yale and other Theory hot spots. The academic work
Theory spawned was noted more for its chosen jargons,
which functioned like secret codes, than for any concern to
establish truth or advance knowledge. It was all about careers
and knowledge, in fact, were ruled out as quaint illusions. This
cleared the way, naturally, for an "anything-goes" atmosphere
of academic criticism. In reality, it was anything but anything
goes, since the political demands of the period included a
long list of stereotyped villains (the West, the Enlightenment,
dead whites males, even clear writing) to be pitted against
mandatory heroines and heroes (indigenous peoples, the working
class, the oppressed, and so forth).
the politics remains as strong as ever in academe, Theory has
atrophied not because it was refuted, but because everyone
got bored with it. Add to that the absurdly bad writing
of academic humanists of the period and episodes like the Sokal
Hoax, and the decline was inevitable. Theory academics
could with high seriousness ignore rational counter-arguments,
but for them ridicule and laughter were like water thrown at
the Wicked Witch. Theory withered and died.
wait. Here is exactly where my most dangerous idea comes in.
What if it turned out that the academic humanities —
art criticism, music and literary history, aesthetic theory,
and the philosophy of art — actually had available to them
a true, and therefore permanently valuable, theory to organize
their speculations and interpretations? What if there really
existed a hitherto unrecognized "grand narrative" that
could explain the entire history of creation and experience of
the arts worldwide?
experience, as well as the context of artistic creation, is
a phenomenon both social and psychological. From the standpoint
of inner experience, it can be addressed by evolutionary psychology:
the idea that our thinking and values are conditioned by the
2.6 million years of natural and sexual selection in the Pleistocene.
Darwinian theory has much to say about the abiding, cross-culturally
ascertainable values human beings find in art. The fascination,
for example, that people worldwide find in the exercise of
artistic virtuosity, from Praxiteles to Hokusai to Renee Fleming,
is not a social construct, but a Pleistocene adaptation (which
outside of the arts shows itself in sporting interests everywhere). That
calendar landscapes worldwide feature alternating copses of
trees and open spaces, often hilly land, water, and paths or
river banks that wind into an inviting distance is a Pleistocene
landscape preference (which shows up in both art history and
in the design of public parks everywhere). That soap
operas and Greek tragedy all present themes of family breakdown
("She killed him because she loved him") is a reflection
of ancient, innate content interests in story-telling.
theory offers substantial answers to perennial aesthetic questions.
It has much to say about the origins of art. It's unlikely
that the arts came about at one time or for one purpose; they
evolved from overlapping interests based in survival and mate
selection in the 80,000 generations of the Pleistocene. How
we scan visually, how we hear, our sense of rhythm, the pleasures
of artistic expression and in joining with others as an audience,
and, not least, how the arts excite us using a repertoire of
universal human emotions: all of this and more will be illuminated
and explained by a Darwinian aesthetics.
encountered stiff academic resistance to the notion that Darwinian
theory might greatly improve the understanding of our aesthetic
and imaginative lives. There's no reason to worry. The
most complete, evolutionarily-based explanation of a great
work of art, classic or recent, will address its form, its
narrative content, its ideology, how it is taken in by the
eye or mind, and indeed, how it can produce a deep, even life-transforming
pleasure. But nothing in a valid aesthetic psychology
will rob art of its appeal, any more than knowing how we evolved
to enjoy fat and sweet makes a piece of cheesecake any less
delicious. Nor will a Darwinian aesthetics reduce the complexity
of art to simple formulae. It will only give us a better
understanding of the greatest human achievements and their
effects on us.
the sense that it would show innumerable careers in the humanities
over the last forty years to have been wasted on banal politics
and execrable criticism, Darwinian aesthetics is a very dangerous
idea indeed. For people who really care about understanding
art, it would be a combination of fresh air and strong coffee.
Editor-At-Large, Wired; Author, New
Rules for the New Economy
anonymity is good
anonymity is good: that's a dangerous idea.
algorithms and cool technology make true anonymity in mediated
environments more possible today than ever before. At the same
time this techno-combo makes true anonymity in physical life
much harder. For every step that masks us, we move two steps
toward totally transparent unmasking. We have caller ID, but
also caller ID Block, and then caller ID-only filters. Coming
up: biometric monitoring and little place to hide. A world
where everything about a person can be found and archived is
a world with no privacy, and therefore many technologists are
eager to maintain the option of easy anonymity as a refuge
for the private.
in every system that I have seen where anonymity becomes common,
the system fails. The recent taint in the honor of Wikipedia
stems from the extreme ease which anonymous declarations can
be put into a very visible public record. Communities infected
with anonymity will either collapse, or shift the anonymous
to pseudo-anonymous, as in eBay, where you have a traceable
identity behind an invented nickname. Or voting, where you
can authenticate an identity without tagging it to a vote.
is like a rare earth metal. These elements are a necessary
ingredient in keeping a cell alive, but the amount needed is
a mere hard-to-measure trace. In larger does these heavy metals
are some of the most toxic substances known to a life. They
kill. Anonymity is the same. As a trace element in vanishingly
small doses, it's good for the system by enabling the occasional
whistleblower, or persecuted fringe. But if anonymity is present
in any significant quantity, it will poison the system.
a dangerous idea circulating that the option of anonymity should
always be at hand, and that it is a noble antidote to technologies
of control. This is like pumping up the levels of heavy metals
in your body into to make it stronger.
can only be won by trust, and trust requires persistent identity,
if only pseudo-anonymously. In the end, the more trust, the
better. Like all toxins, anonymity should be keep as close
to zero as possible.
Psychologist, UC-Berkeley; Coauthor, The
Scientist In the Crib
cacophony of "controversy"
may not be good to encourage scientists to articulate dangerous
scientists, almost by definition, tend towards the contrarian
and ornery, and nothing gives them more pleasure than holding
to an unconventional idea in the face of opposition. Indeed,
orneriness and contrarianism are something of currency for
science — nobody wants to have an idea that everyone
else has too. Scientists are always constructing a straw man "establishment" opponent
who they can then fearlessly demolish. If you combine that
with defying the conventional wisdom of non-scientists you
have a recipe for a very distinctive kind of scientific smugness
and self-righteousness. We scientists see this contrarian habit
grinning back at us in a particularly hideous and distorted
form when global warming opponents or intelligent design advocates
invoke the unpopularity of their ideas as evidence that they
should be accepted, or at least discussed.
problem is exacerbated for public intellectuals. For the media
too, would far rather hear about contrarian or unpopular or
morally dubious or "controversial" ideas than ones
that are congruent with everyday morality and wisdom. No one
writes a newspaper article about a study that shows that girls
are just as good at some task as boys, or that children are
influenced by their parents.
is certainly true that there is no reason that scientifically
valid results should have morally comforting consequences — but
there is no reason why they shouldn't either. Unpopularity
or shock is no more a sign of truth than popularity is. More
to the point, when scientists do have ideas that are potentially
morally dangerous they should approach those ideas with hesitancy
and humility. And they should do so in full recognition of
the great human tragedy that, as Isiah Berlin pointed out,
there can be genuinely conflicting goods and that humans are
often in situations of conflict for which there is no simple
or obvious answer.
and morality may indeed in some cases be competing values,
but that is a tragedy, not a cause for self-congratulation.
Humility and empathy come less easily to most scientists, most
certainly including me, than pride and self-confidence, but
perhaps for that very reason they are the virtues we should
is, of course, itself a dangerous idea. Orneriness and contrarianism
are in fact, genuine scientific virtues, too. And in the current
profoundly anti-scientific political climate it is terribly
dangerous to do anything that might give comfort to the enemies
of science. But I think the peril to science actually doesn't
lie in timidity or self-censorship. It is much more likely
to lie in a cacophony of "controversy".
Physicist, Perimeter Institute; Author, Three
Roads to Quantum Gravity
Darwin in the light of Einstein; seeing Einstein in the light
revolutionary moves made by Einstein and Darwin are closely
related, and their combination will increasingly come to define
how we see our worlds: physical, biological and social.
Einstein, the properties of elementary particles were understood
as being defined against an absolute, eternally fixed background.
This way of doing science had been introduced by Newton. His
method was to posit the existence of an absolute and eternal
background structure against which the properties of things
were defined. For example, this is how Newton conceived of
space and time. Particles have properties defined, not with
respect to each other, but each with respect to only the absolute
background of space and time. Einstein's great achievement
was to realize successfully the contrary idea, called relationalism,
according to which the world is a network of relationships
which evolve in time. There is no absolute background and the
properties of anything are only defined in terms of its participation
in this network of relations.
Darwin, species were thought of as eternal categories, defined
a priori; after Darwin species were understood to be relational
categories-that is only defined in terms of their relationship
with the network of interactions making up the biosphere. Darwin's
great contribution was to understand that there is a process-natural
selection-that can act on relational properties, leading to
the birth of genuine novelty by creating complexes of relationships
that are increasingly structured and complex.
Darwin in the light of Einstein, we understand that all the
properties a species has in modern biology are relational.
There is no absolute background in biology.
Einstein in the light of Darwin opens up the possibility that
the mechanism of natural selection could act not only on living
things but on the properties that define the different species
of elementary particles.
first, physicists thought that the only relational properties
an elementary particle might have were its position and motion
in space and time. The other properties, like mass and charge
were thought of in the old framework: defined by a background
of absolute law. The standard model of particle physics taught
us that some of those properties, like mass, are only the consequence
of a particles interactions with other fields. As a result
the mass of a particle is determined environmentally, by the
phase of the other fields it interacts with.
don't know which model of quantum gravity is right, but all
the leading candidates, string theory, loop quantum gravity
and others, teach us that it is possible that all properties
of elementary particles are relational and environmental. In
different possible universes there may be different combinations
of elementary particles and forces. Indeed, all that used to
be thought of as fundamental, space and the elementary
particles themselves are increasingly seen, in models of quantum
gravity, as themselves emergent from a more elementary network
basic method of science after Einstein seems to be: identify
something in your theory that is playing the role of an absolute
background, that is needed to define the laws that govern objects
in your theory, and understand it more deeply as a contingent
property, which itself evolves subject to law.
example, before Einstein the geometry of space was thought
of as specified absolutely as part of the laws of nature. After
Einstein we understand geometry is contingent and dynamical,
which means it evolves subject to law. This means that Einstein's
move can even be applied to aspects of what were thought to
be the laws of nature: so that even aspects of the laws turn
out to evolve in time.
basic method of science after Darwin seems to be to identify
some property once thought to be absolute and defined a prior
and recognize that it can be understood because it has evolved
by a process of or akin to natural selection. This has revolutionized
biology and is in the process of doing the same to the social
can see by how I have stated it that these two methods are
closely related. Einstein emphasizes the relational aspect
of all properties described by science, while Darwin proposes
that ultimately, the law which governs the evolution of everything
else, including perhaps what were once seen to be laws-is natural
Darwin's method be applied even to the laws of physics? Recent
developments in elementary particle physics give us little
alternative if we are to have a rational understanding of the
laws that govern our universe. I am referring here to the realization
that string theory gives us, not a unique set of particles
and forces, but an infinite list out of which one came to be
selected for our universe. We physicists have now to understand
Darwin's lesson: the only way to understand how one out
of a vast number of choices was made, which favors improbably
structure, is that it is the result of evolution by natural
this work? I showed it might, in 1992, in a theory of cosmological
natural selection. This remains the only theory of how our
laws came to be selected so far proposed that makes falsifiable
idea that laws of nature are themselves the result of evolution
by natural selection is nothing new, it was anticipated by
the philosopher Charles Sanders Pierce, who wrote in 1891:
suppose universal laws of nature capable of being apprehended
by the mind and yet having no reason for their special
forms, but standing inexplicable and irrational, is hardly
a justifiable position. Uniformities are precisely the
sort of facts that need to be accounted for. Law is par
excellence the thing that wants a reason. Now the only
possible way of accounting for the laws of nature, and
for uniformity in general, is to suppose them results of
idea remains dangerous, not only for what it has achieved,
but for what it implies for the future. For there are implications
have yet to be absorbed or understood, even by those who have
come to believe it is the only way forward for science. For
example, must there always be a deeper, or meta-law, which
governs the physical mechanisms by which a law evolves? And
what about the fact that laws of physics are expressed in mathematics,
which is usually thought of as encoding eternal truths? Can
mathematics itself come to be seen as time bound rather that
as transcendent and eternal platonic truths?
believe that we will achieve clarity on these and other scary
implications of the idea that all the regularities we observe,
including those we have gotten used to calling laws, are the
result of evolution by natural selection. And I believe that
once this is achieved Einstein and Darwin will be understood
as partners in the greatest revolution yet in science, a revolution
that taught us that the world we are imbedded in is nothing
but an ever evolving network of relationships.