ARE YOU OPTIMISTIC ABOUT?"
Consultant, Adaptive Optics; Adjunct
Professor of Anthropology, University of Utah
the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread"—it has always
been that way.
men have been slaves of necessity, while the few who were not lived
by exploiting others who were. Although mechanization has eased
that burden in the advanced countries, it is still the case for
the majority of the human race. Limited resources (mainly fossil
fuels), as well as negative consequences of industrialization such
as global warming, have made some people question whether American
living standards can ever be extended to most of the human race.
They're pessimists, and they're wrong.
anyone seems to realize it, but we're on the threshold of an era
of unbelievable abundance. Within a generation—sooner if
we want it enough—we will be able to make a self-replicating
machine, first seriously suggested by John von Neumann.
a machine would absorb energy through solar cells, eat rock and
use the energy and minerals to make copies of itself. Numbers would
grow geometrically, and if we manage to design one with a reasonably
short replication time—say six months—we could have
trillions working for humanity in another generation. You might
compare this process to a single cell of blue-green algae, which
replicates over the summer until it covers the entire pond. But
unlike algae, a self-replicating machine would be programmed and
controlled by us. If it could make it its own mechanical and electronic
parts, it would also be able to make toasters, refrigerators, and
Lamborghinis, as well as the electricity to power them. We could
make the deserts bloom, put two cars in every pot, and end world
poverty, while simultaneously fighting global warming. It's closer
than you think, since the key technologies are already being developed
for use in rapid prototyping and desktop manufacturing. Aristotle
thought that slavery would only end when looms weave by themselves:
we're almost there.
now the human race uses about 13 trillion watts: the solar cells
required to produce that much power would take up less than a fifth
of one percent of the Earth's land surface—remember that
the Earth intercepts more solar energy in an hour than the human
race uses in a year. That's a lot of solar cell acreage, but it's
affordable as long as they make themselves. We could put them in
deserts—in fact, they'd all fit inside the Rub' al Khali,
the Empty Quarter of Saudi Arabia. As I understand it, we like
depending on the Saudis for energy.
there are better ways. Solar energy works better in space—sure,
the weather is better, but also consider that the vast majority
of the Sun's energy misses the Earth. In fact only about one part
in two billion warms this planet. Space-based self-replicating
systems could harvest some of that lost sunlight—enough to
make possible a lot of energy-expensive projects that are currently
impractical. An interstellar probe is a bit beyond our means right
now, and the same is true of terraforming Venus or Mars. That will
change within our children's lifetimes.
reminded of Mickey Mouse as the sorcerer's apprentice in Fantasia...
He enchanted a broomstick to fetch water, but didn't know how to
stop it. When he split the broom with an axe, over and over, each
of the pieces took up a pail—and before you know he was in
over his head. But where he saw a crisis, we see opportunity.
Technology Forecaster; Consulting Associate
Professor, Stanford University
Is Particularly Good At Muddling
a short-term pessimist but a long-term optimist. History is on
my side for the cause of today’s fashionable pessimism lies
much deeper than the unpleasant surprises of the last half-decade.
In fact, both our pessimism and the rise of fundamentalisms that
so bedevil global society at the moment share a common source—the
year 2000 and the roll-over into this century. The approach of
each New Year inevitably, predictably, causes us to look back and
wonder what lies ahead. It is no coincidence that you pose
the annual Edge Question in December and not July.
contemplation of the New Year amplifies our predispositions; pessimists
become more certain that things are falling apart, while optimists
see greater hope than ever. Opinion inevitably clusters at the
extremes. This tendency is amplified by the number of zeros in
the year to come. Decade ends affect the zeitgeist for a year or
two, while century endings reverberate for 10 years or more, as
demonstrated by the impact of the Fin de siècle a
hundred years ago.
less experience with millennium roll-overs, but we are learning
fast. With perfect hindsight, the influence of the approaching
millennium can be seen throughout the 1990s and even earlier. Millennial
anxieties contributed in no small part to the rise of religious
fundamentalism, while millennially-inflated hopes encouraged the
touchingly innocent optimism overlaid atop the internet revolution
and emergent globalization.
the greatest impact of our calendric angst occurs after the triggering
date has passed. The year 2000 is still affects—perhaps even
dominates—the zeitgeist today. Eschatologically-obsessed
believers like Muqtada al-Sadr stand astride events in Iraq, convinced
by the calendar that the Madhi redeemer will finally reveal himself.
Closer to home, an astonishingly large population of Americans
are equally convinced that the Apocalypse will arrive at any moment,
and there is little doubt that fundamentalist apocalyptic beliefs
directly affect US policy. There also is no shortage of millennially-inspired
optimists (some whose answers are on this site) confident that
the wonder machines of science and technology will allow us to
live forever, power our devices with puffs of hydrogen, banish
terrorism, and usher in a new age of human understanding and world
a short-term pessimist because the Millennium is still clouding
our collective thinking and may yet inspire the addled few to try
something truly stupid, like an act of mega-terror or a nuclear
exchange between nations. But I am a long-term optimist because
the influence of the Millennium is already beginning to fade. We
will return to our moderate senses as the current uncertainties
settle into a comprehensible new order. I am an unshakable optimist
because in its broadest strokes, the future will be what the future
has always been, a mix of challenges, marvels and endless surprise.
We will do what we have always done and muddle our collective way
through. Humankind is particularly good at muddling, and that is
what makes me most optimistic of all.
Social and cognitive scientist;
Directeur de Recherche, CNRS, Paris; Author, Rethinking
on the Web
the question been, "What are you pessimistic about?" I
would have answered: If there is any progress in human wisdom (and,
yes, I suppose there is) it is pathetically slow, while ever faster
technological advances provide the means for self-righteous, unwise
people with power, wealth, or charisma to cause greater and greater
havoc. I don't alas have any equally broad and compelling reasons
to be optimistic about the future of humankind. Humans, however,
are full of surprises, many of them excellent, arousing new hopes
each according to his ability, to each according to his needs," so
did Marx define communism. Outside of narrow kinship or friendship
groups, this kind of altruistic sharing of resources has hardly
ever been encountered, and it is not difficult to understand why:
Such a utopia, however attractive, is quite impractical. Yet, with
the advent of the new information technologies and in particular
of the Web, a limited form of informational 'communism' that no
one had predicted has emerged and is fast developing. A vast array
of technological, intellectual and artistic creations, many of
them of outstanding quality, are being made freely available to
all according to their needs by individuals working according to
the best of their abilities and often seeking self-realization
even more than recognition. I have in mind the freeware, the wikis,
the open source programs, the open access documents, the million
of blogs and personal pages, the online text, image, and music
and libraries, the free websites catering to all kind of needs
and constituencies. Who had been optimistic enough to expect not
just the existence of this movement, but its expansion, its force,
its capacity to rival commercial products and major businesses
and to create new kinds of services, blogs for instance, of great
social and cultural import even if of limited economic value?
or realists—call them what you want—might say: Economic
benefit is still the main force driving innovation. Gifted disinterested
amateurs—if that is truly what they are—are a welcome
anomaly spurring competition, but what matter to the end user is
the utility of the product. A cheaper product, and a fortiori a
free one, is preferable, everything else being equal, but businesses,
by providing extra quality worth the cost, make it sure that everything
is rarely equal. So let us praise innovation wherever it comes
from, paying the price when justified and mouthing a word of praise
when it comes free. But let us not read too much—informational
communism? Give me a break—into a probably ephemeral sociological
oddity. As many others have noted, the economics of information
are peculiar, if only because you can give information without
losing it and you may gain from giving it as much or more as from
receiving it. Applying a standard economic model to the movement
of information on the Web may not be the best science (actually,
applying a standard economic model to standard economic situations
may not be the best science either).
optimistic about the development of both individual and collective
forms of altruism on the Web. Moreover, I believe that what we
see on the Web has more diffuse counterparts in society at large.
The Web is a network of networks where, at every individual node,
many communities overlap, and where local allegiances have at best
a weak hold. The World Wide Web is the most dynamic and visible
manifestation, and a driving force of a world that is itself becoming
one wide web. In this world, more and more altruistic acts—acts
that had in ancestral times been aimed just at one's kin, and later
extended to tribe, sect, or country—may now, out of sensible
sense of common destiny, be intended for the benefit of all. No
Hallelujah however. If our destiny is indeed ever more common,
it is because we all stand to suffer from the misdeed of a few
as much as to benefit from the generous actions of many.
Research Professor, Department of Anthropology,
Rutgers University; Author, Why
wins; love always wins," it has been said. But throughout
most of our agrarian past, love lost, at least among the upper
classes. Today I am optimistic about romantic love, because we
are returning to patterns of romance that humankind enjoyed across
most of our deep history: choosing lovers and spouses for ourselves.
may have started to arrange their children's marriages when the
brain began to develop some two million years ago. But in those
few hunting and gathering societies that still survive, parents
only initiate the first wedding of a son or daughter. Moreover,
this contract is flexible. If the callow newlyweds are not happy
with their match, they pick up their few belongings and walk home.
The contract has been honored and parents are pleased to see their
youth again. The young go on to choose their next partner for themselves.
as our forebears began to settle down some 10,000 years ago, and
as they acquired immoveable property like fields of grain and sturdy
homes, they began to need to cement their social ties. What better
way than to wed your daughter with my son? Strictly arranged marriages
became a way to built one's fortune and secure one's genetic future.
These marriages had to endure, too. In some farming communities,
you could fall in love with whom you chose; but you married the "right" individual,
with the "right" kin connections and "right" social,
economic and political ties.
widespread tradition of strictly arranged marriages began to dissipate
with the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. As men and women
left the farm for factory work, they no longer needed to maintain
many of these connections. They could chose partners for themselves.
this movement is gaining speed, due to two dramatic world trends:
the global rise of women in the paid labor force; and the aging
world population. For millions of years women commuted to work
to gather their fruits and vegetables and came home with much of
the evening meal. Women were economically, sexually and socially
powerful. With the invention of the plow, however, women lost much
of their economic independence. But as women go back to work and
come home with money, they are reacquiring their economic autonomy—and
their ancient ability to choose their lovers and spouses for themselves.
With the aging world population, high divorce and remarriage rates,
and many modern inventions, from Viagra to hip replacements, women
(and men) now have the time, opportunity and health to make their
own match, what the Chinese call "free love."
with the rise of romantic love within marriage has come what
sociologists hail as the 21st century marital form, known as peer marriages,
symmetrical marriages or companionate marriages: weddings between equals. "Marriage," Voltaire
wrote, "is the only adventure open to the cowardly." Today
more and more men and women have the opportunity to enjoy this adventure—life
with someone they passionately love. In this way humanity is regaining
a tradition that is highly compatible with our ancient human spirit.
Johannes Gutenberg-Universität Mainz;
Author, Being No One
Will Be Dead Wrong Again
am optimistic that I will be dead wrong again. As I have
frequently been in the past. Being a philosopher, I was strongly
opposed to marriage—on strictly theoretical grounds of
course! And about the only thing I always agreed on with Nietzschewas
that married philosophers basically are clowns, as he put it:
people who belong in a comedy play. Real life proved me wrong
(at least I think so), and I am glad it did. Not a single
one of all these high-paid sociologists and politologists predicted
the wall's coming down in 1989. They were dead wrong. And, boy,
would each one of them have loved to be the one to make
exactly this prediction! I was also dead wrong in believing that
European governments would never have the guts and the actual
power to ban advertisements for tobacco products—or that
European citizens would actually stop smoking in bars
and public places, simply because their governments told them
to. Wasn’t it much more plausible to expect major rebellions
in countries like Ireland or Italy? How could anyone believe
this could actually work?
that America is not a Western country any more, I have serious
doubts that Europe can actually rescue the heritage of enlightenment.
Who will sustain democratic values, and fight for all these old-fashioned
ideas like human rights and freedom of speech? China forcefully
looks for a path of its own, but in a way that many find quite
unsettling. Will India—now the world’s greatest democratic
project—manage or will it collapse into even more corruption
and self-generated chaos? Who will conserve and cultivate our legal
systems, who will culture scientific rationality and the brand
new tradition of settling ethical issues by argument, not by force?
Europe is in a strange state: Russia looks bad, Italy is a twilight
state, Germany can’t move, in many countries like Austria
or Denmark the voters are flirting with the extreme right. No constitution.
No common vision. And the pressure of globalization on our social
sociodynamics keeps on unfolding as it currently does, isn’t
it likely that Europeans on their own will not stand a chance to
change the overall trend? America is gone for good. How rational
is it really—to
still keep on believing that Europe as a whole will not only grasp
the historical challenge, but eventually get its act together?
I am optimistic that, once again, I will be dead wrong.
Tech Culture Journalist;
Commentator, NPR; Columnist, Wired
Prevails. Sometimes, Technology Helps
I became a born-again optimist this year in an unlikely place: surrounded by hundreds of cardboard boxes filled with the dead.
They were indigenous victims of Guatemala's civil war. Row after row, stacked floor to roof, on the top level of a building protected by concertina wire and armed guards in Guatemala City. This site is home to a group called the Forensic Anthropology Foundation of Guatemala.
The living were downstairs. Using open source software, recycled computers, and DNA forensics help from labs in the United States, they work to identify the dead. The FAFG staff includes lawyers, 'antropologos forensicos' and I.T. engineers. The process begins when someone tips them on the whereabouts of one of these clandestine mass graves. Then comes the slow digging, and what must be painful conversations with the surviving relatives, who often fear retribution from the perpetrators — because the killers sometimes live in the same village, right next door. The army recruited soldiers from the same Mayan villages their scorched-earth policies sought to destroy.
The FAFG exhumations yield clumps of bones, flesh, sometimes the clothing the victim wore when the killing happened. And back in this Guatemala City building now, the living are cleaning and scraping and sorting those clumps of bone and dirt, laying them out on tables, brushing the soil off, marking each tibia and fibula and tooth with codes that will soon be tapped into databases. When everything comes together just right — the survivor's testimony, the database tables, the DNA prints, the bullet holes through the dry cranium, the dig maps — when all of that clicks, someone then writes a code in black marker on the side of a cardboard box.
"Jacinto Rodriguez, FAFG-482-V-I, Nebaj, El Quiché." He
was one of thousands whose deaths the military authorities denied
or discounted for decades.
Sometimes, governments turn on their own citizens, and those corrupt regimes are sustained in part by lies. Sometimes the lies last for decades. Sometimes longer.
But science does not lie.
These boxes full of bones, and all the data with which they're tagged: none of that lies. Even though the living in this building work under death threats (they're texted in by SMS now), even though they lack financial, technical and practical resources — day after day, more of those boxes fill with codes and names. And eventually, the dead return to their pueblos, inside these boxes, for reburial.
"The survivors want to know that their family members will rest in a dignified way, instead of being dumped by the side of the road like dogs," one of the anthropologists told me. "More
than justice in the American sense of the word — more than revenge,
or legal process — they just want their people back."
I met with other organizations like FAFG this year in Guatemala and other countries. Organizations run by individuals who are working very hard, under impossibly difficult conditions, to uncover and preserve the truth of past human rights violations. And what I saw — in particular, new uses of technological tools to solve old problems — gave me hope.
Even with the greatest of challenges, and the passing of years, the truth eventually prevails. When at least one person believes the truth matters, there is hope.
Psychologist, New York University;
Author, The Birth of the
use the discoveries of cognitive science to improve the quality
of education in the US and abroad. To do this, however, we need
to radically rethink how our schools work. Going back to the Industrial
Revolution, the main emphasis as been on memorization, force-feeding
our children with bite-sized morsels that are easily memorize—and
quickly forgotten. (Recall the words of Dickens' stern schoolmaster
Mr. Gradgrind, "Now, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys
and girls nothing but Facts... Plant nothing else, and root out
everything else.") I am not sure it ever served a purpose
for children to memorize the capitals of all 50 states (as I failed
to do in junior high school), but in the age of Google, continued
emphasis on memorization is surely largely a waste of time.
decades of cognitive science have taught us that humans are not
particularly good memorizers—but also that we as a species
have bigger fish to fry. Hamlet famously marveled that humans were "noble
in reason", "infinite in faculty", but experimental
psychologists like Daniel Kahneman and the late Amos Tversky have
shown that humans are actually often poor reasoners, easily fooled.
The average person tends to have a shaky grasp on logic, to believe
a lot of what he (or she) hears unreflectively, and to be overly
confident in his (or her) own beliefs. We tend to be easily fooled
by vivid examples, and to notice data that support our theories—whilst
forgetting about or ignoring data that go against our theories.
Yet I cannot recall a single high school class on informal arguments,
how to spot fallacies, or how to interpret statistics; it wasn't
until college that anybody explained to me the relation between
causation and correlation. In the age of the internet, our problem
is not that children can't find information, but that they can't
children of today need is not so much a large stock of readily
Googleable information as a mental toolkit for parsing what they
hear and read. As the old saying goes, it is better to teach a
man how to fish than to simply give him fish; the current curriculum
largely gives children fish, without teaching them a thing about
how to fish for themselves.
to teach children to fish for themselves? I would start with a
course in what cognitive scientists call metacognition, knowing
about knowing, call it The Human Mind: A User's Guide, aimed at
say, seventh-graders.. Instead of emphasizing facts, I'd expose
students to the architecture of the mind, what it does well, and
what it doesn't. And most important, how to cope with its limitations,
to consider evidence in a more balanced way, to be sensitive to
biases in our reasoning, and to make choices in ways that better
suit our own long-term goals. Nobody ever taught me about these
things in middle school (or even high school), but there's no reason
why they couldn't be taught; in time, I expect they will.
Psychologist, MIT; Author, Evocative
Objects: Things We Think With
sits braiding the hair on the tail of her My Little Pony doll,
completely absorbed in the job. The shining plasticized hair is
long and resilient; she plays with it for hours.
starts by taking the tail and dividing it into three pieces that
she braids together. Then, she undoes that braid and begins to
nest layers of braids. She divides the tail into nine pieces
and braids each group of three until she has three braids, and
then takes these three braids and braids them together. After a
while, the girl is starting with twenty-seven pieces, braiding
them first into nine, then into three, then into one. The girl
is playing with My Little Pony but she is thinking about recursion.
eight-year-old is one of my MIT students, telling a story of her
childhood. For the past thirty years, I have begun each class at
MIT by asking my students to write about an object that was important
to them on their path toward science. What they have had to say
testifies to the importance of objects in the development of a
love for science—a truth that is simple, intuitive, and easily
overlooked. And it is cause for optimism because it offers a hopeful
note as we face our national crisis in science education.
argue about testing and standards, about the virtues of digital
tools, about whether or not to move to online courseware, we have
a tendency—as in any emergency—to look for salvation
in the next new thing or things. In this case, these next
new things are testing, measurement, and the computer itself as
a way to provide educational solutions. But we can also look to
the last things that worked. And one of the things that has always
worked in getting young people interested in science has been object
passions. From my very first days at MIT in 1976, I met students
and colleagues who spoke about how as children they were drawn
to science by the mesmerizing power of a crystal radio, by the
physics of sand castles, by playing with marbles, by childhood
explorations of air-conditioning units.
trends are apparent as I look at the objects that have drawn children
to science over the past thirty years. One is an interest in "transparency." Through
the mid-1980s, MIT students wrote about being drawn to science
by radios, vacuum cleaners, wooden blocks, and broken telephones.
These are things to take apart and put back together again. By
the end of the 1980s, the emphasis shifts to objects that are investigated
through the manipulation of program and code. Yet even with the
passage from mechanical to electronic, and from analog to digital,
students express a desire to get close to the inner workings of
their machines. Even with machines that are increasingly opaque—with
a printed circuit board one can no longer "open the hood and
look inside"—young people with a scientific bent continue
to search for at least a metaphorical understanding of the mechanism
behind the magic. And they find it.
seeking a way to make any object transparent, students extol the
pleasure of materials, of texture, what one might call the resistance
of the "real." For one, geology became real through her
childhood experience of baking a chocolate meringue: "Basic
ingredients, heated, separated, and cooled equals planet." A
thirteen-year-old looks up at the motion of his fly line while
fishing with his father and is reminded of drawings of long, continuous,
flowing lines he had made in algebra class. "I realized that
the motion of my hand had a very direct effect on the movement
of the line, much in the same way that the input to a function
produced a given output. Without any formal understanding of the
physics involved, I was able to see the fly rod as representing
a given function for which I was the input... From this point on,
the fly rod was my metaphor for understanding function in mathematics."
scientists are encouraged by a personal experience with an object
they can understand and with which they can tinker. Playing with
objects in their own way leads children to build a personal scientific
style. There has been no simple migration to a new digital world.
Children grow up in many worlds—they are seduced by the virtual,
but always brought back to the physical, to the analog, and of
course, to nature.
is fueled by passion, a passion that often attaches to the world
of objects much as the artist attaches to his paints, the poet
to his words. Putting children in a rich object world is essential
to giving science a chance. At a time when science education is
in crisis, giving science its best chance means guiding children
to objects they can love. Children will make intimate connections,
connections they need to construct on their own.
of the things that keeps educators and parents from valuing children's
object passions is the fear that children will become trapped in
objects, the fear that children will prefer the company of objects
to that of other children. But even if the objects in the life
of a young scientist do begin as objects of reassurance for a lonely
child, these objects—from the periodic table of the elements
(because it offers an image of perfect and reassuring organization)
to Lego blocks (because they offer a way to create perfect and
reassuring symmetries) can become points of entry to larger, transformative
experiences of understanding and confidence, very often at the
point they are shared.
wise to attend to young scientists' romance with objects. If we
do so, we are encouraged to make children comfortable with the
idea that falling in love with things is part of what we expect
of them. We are encouraged to introduce the periodic table as poetry
and LEGOs as a form of art.
Children, Computers, and Powerful Ideas, Seymour Papert
writes of falling in love with the gears of a toy car that
his father gave him when he was two. Fascination with those gears
led to fascination with others. He played with gears in his mind
and mathematics began to come alive for him. He fell in love
with the gears and he fell in love with science, all at the same
time. Papert makes the point that if anyone had tried to measure
what was happening to him as this inner explosion of affect and
cognition was occurring, they would have found nothing to measure.
made optimistic because a conversation about objects reminds us
that just because we can't take a measurement doesn't mean that
something important is not occurring. Too often when we can't test,
we end the conversation. My students' voices make me optimistic
because they serve as a reminder that the limit of testing is not
the limit of inquiry. It can mark the moment where we turn directly
to the child, where we put our deeper intelligence to work. We
can learn what motivates and what inspires..
a practical point of view, we cannot know in advance whether we
stand before a child who will use objects as a path to science.
If we insist on one-kind-fits-all curricular programming that takes
children away from the idiosyncratic objects they are drawn to,
we could miss a child who makes Cs and Ds in math and science but
goes on to develop an abiding love for designing complex systems
because he has connected with LEGOs and a personal computer. We
could miss a child who doesn't think of herself as a science student
even as she silently absorbs everything she can learn from chemistry
experiments that create purple smoke. We might not count as learning
the lessons that come with braiding a pony's tail, casting a fly
rod, or baking a meringue.
reminded daily of these object passions in the students I teach; I
am optimistic as I begin to sense the political and philanthropic
will that could enable these passions to find their voice in education.
Chief Curator, Utah Museum of Natural History;
Associate Professor, University
of Utah; Host, Dinosaur Planet TV series
New, Environmentally Sustainable Worldview
the current array of critical environmental woes—global warming,
habitat loss, and species extinctions, among others—one might
assume that there is little room for optimism. Nevertheless,
I am optimistic, albeit cautiously so, about a profound shift in
human attitudes toward the environment.
current worldview in the Western world is a reductionist perspective
that has been dominant for over 300 years. Founded by scientists
such as Descartes, Newton, Galileo, and Bacon, reductionism regards
the natural world as a series of machines best understood by ever-more
detailed examination of constituent parts. This mechanistic
approach has generated a plethora of scientific breakthroughs—quantum
theory, genetics, high-speed computers, and the germ theory of
disease, to name a few—with each intoxicating success fueling
ever-more intense investigation of nature's components. Yet
it has also fostered a fundamental division between humans and
the natural world, with the former envisioned as dominating the
the Cartesian perspective on nature has proven to have severe limitations
within science. In particular, because of a myopic focus
on the parts, little attention has been given to connections and
relationships, let alone wholes. In response to this perceived
gap in understanding, many disciplines have recently turned to
a 'systems' approach that often unites once separate disciplines. Thus,
there has been an ever-growing emphasis on interdisciplinary research,
with, for example, geobiology and biocomplexity becoming legitimate
fields of study. Simultaneously, many educators have begun
to direct their efforts toward revealing the "web of life," including
the myriad connections that link the living and non-living aspects
underlying themes of the outdated, mechanistic perspective are
isolation and permanence, with objects perceived as relatively
permanent and distinct from one another. In contrast, the
new worldview celebrates the opposite concepts: connections and
change. And once again there is a firm grounding in science,
which has demonstrated that natural systems are inextricably interconnected
and continually undergoing change (particularly if one's perspective
includes deep time).
in part to a global economy and the World Wide Web, the mantra
of this new movement—"It is all connected"—has
even made its way into the popular media. At a slow but increasing
pace, people are becoming aware that their everyday decisions can
have far-reaching, even global, effects. Surely there is
hope and optimism to be found in the many recent movements toward
sustainability, even if most of these efforts remain on a small
any optimism with regard to a growing environmental consciousness
must be tempered with a double dose of reality. First, environmental
changes are occurring at rates that are entirely unknown in human
experience. To give just one case in point, the rate of species
extinctions is about 1000 times greater than has been typical in
earth history. Indeed the current human-induced mass extinction
is on track to obliterate on the order of one half of all species
on earth by the close of this century, with unpredictable (and
perhaps unimaginable) ecological consequences. Thus, we have
little time to make this transformational leap. The next
few decades will be pivotal.
the transition to a sustainable worldview will not occur simply
through a sufficiently heightened fear of environmental collapse. No,
such a fundamental shift will require no less than a transformation
of our educational system, not only K-12 but higher education as
well. We must equip parents and educators with the tools
to be effective not only in communicating the science of natural
systems, but also in fostering passion for nature ("biophilia",
to use E. O. Wilson's term). By necessity, this process will
involve getting children outdoors early and often, so that they
have a chance to forge bonds with nature. First and foremost,
education should be aimed at teaching children and adults how to
live well in the world. Ultimately, in order for this pressing
venture to be successful, scientists must become directly involved,
communicating science to a broad audience at unprecedented levels. In
other words, "Third Culture" must step
up and take on a major role in this endeavor.
Physicist, Arizona State
University; Author, The
One-Way Ticket To Mars
time before the end of the century there will be a human colony
on Mars. It will happen when people finally wake up to the fact
that two-way trips to the red planet are unnecessary. By cutting
out the return journey huge savings can be made, and the way will
then be open to establishing a permanent human presence on another
ticket to Mars is not an invitation for a suicide mission. Adequate
supplies and a nuclear power supply can be sent on ahead, and every
two years more supplies, and more astronauts, will be dispatched
to the new colony. Mars is relatively inhospitable, but it is far
more congenial than outer space. It has all the raw materials needed
for a colony to eventually become self-sufficient. To be sure,
life would be cramped and uncomfortable for the trail-blazers,
but so it was for Antarctic explorers a century ago.
about the risks of leaving people stranded on Mars? Most of the
danger of space flight lies in the launches and landings, as the
two shuttle disasters horrifically demonstrated. Eliminating the
trip home would therefore slash the overall risk of accidents.
The harsh Martian environment would undoubtedly reduce the life
expectancy of the colonists, but astronauts on a round-trip would
be exposed to comparable health hazards from months of space radiation
and zero gravity.
would people go to Mars, never to return? Many reasons—an
innate sense of adventure and curiosity, the lure of being the
first humans to open up an entirely new world, the desire to explore
an exotic and unique environment, the expectation of fame and glory.
For scientists there are added reasons. A geologist on Mars would
be like a kid in a candy store, and would soon clock up a sensational
publication record. The crowning achievement would be evidence
for life, a discovery likely to transform our view of nature and
our place in the cosmos. A straw poll among my colleagues convinces
me that there would be no lack of volunteers.
might the first colonists set out? Within a few years, if politics
didn't stand in the way. NASA could send a crew of four to Mars
with existing technology, but the agency lacks the nerve and imagination
for such an adventurous mission. However, I am optimistic that
the new players in space—China and India—will not suffer
from Western timidity. A joint Indian-Chinese colony on Mars by
2100 is not only technologically feasible, it is also politically