ARE YOU OPTIMISTIC ABOUT?"
The Royal Society; Professor of Cosmology & Astrophysics; Master,
Trinity College, University of Cambridge; Author, Our Final
Century: The 50/50 Threat to Humanity's Survival
years ago, I wrote a short book entitled Our Final Century?
I guessed that, taking all risks into account, there was only a
50 percent chance that civilisation would get through to 2100 without
a disastrous setback. This seemed to me a far from cheerful conclusion.
However, I was surprised by the way my colleagues reacted to the
book: many thought a catastrophe was even more likely than I did,
and regarded me as an optimist. I stand by this optimism.
are indeed powerful grounds for being a techno-optimist. . For
most people in most nations, there's never been a better time to
be alive. The innovations that will drive economic advance
—information technology, biotech and nanotech—can
boost the developing as well as the developed world. We're becoming
embedded in a cyberspace that can link anyone, anywhere, to all the
world's information and culture—and to every other person
on the planet. Creativity in science and the arts is open to hugely
more than in the past. 21st century technologies will offer lifestyles
that are environmentally benign—involving lower demands on
energy or resources than what we'd consider a good life today. And
we could readily raise the funds - were there the political will—to
lift the world's two billion most deprived people from their extreme
in this century, mind-enhancing drugs, genetics, and 'cyberg' techniques
may change human beings themselves. That's something qualitatively
new in recorded history—and it will pose novel ethical
conundrums. Our species could be transformed and diversified (here
on Earth and perhaps beyond) within just a few centuries.
benefits of earlier technology weren't achieved without taking
risks—we owe modern aviation, and modern surgery, to many
martyrs. But, though plane crashes, boiler explosions and the like
were horrible, there was a limit to just how horrible
—a limit to their scale. In our ever more interconnected world,
where technology empowers us more than ever, we're vulnerable to
scary new risks—events of such catastrophic global consequences
that it's imprudent to ignore them even if their probabililty seems
set of risks stems from humanity's collective impact. Our actions
are transforming, even ravaging, the entire biosphere
—perhaps irreversibly—through global warming and loss
of biodiversity. Remedial action may come too late to prevent 'runaway'
climatic or environmental devastation.
we also face vulnerabilities of a quite different kind, stemming
from unintended consequences (or intended misuse) of ever more
empowering bio and cyber technology. The global village will have
its village idiots.
risks are real. But, by making
the right collective choices we can alleviate all these hazards.
such choices, my number-one priority would be much-expanded R and
D into a whole raft of techniques for storing energy and generating
it by 'clean' or low-carbon methods. The stakes are high—the
world spends nearly 3 trillion dollars per year on energy and its
infrastructure. This effort can engage not just those in privileged
technical envonments in advanced countries, but a far wider talent
pool Even if we discount climate change completely, the quest for
clean energy is worthwhile on grounds of energy security, diversity
This goal deserve a priority and commitment from governments
akin to that accorded to the Manhattan project or the
Apollo moon landing. It should appeal to the idealistic
young—indeed I can't think
of anything that could do more to attract the brightest and best
of them into science than a strongly proclaimed commitment, from
all technologically-developed nations, to take a lead in providing
clean and sustainable energy for the developing and the developed
The New School; Coauthor, Children’s
Learning and Attention Problems
Sleep Will Prolong Conscious Life
life span is extending, but the extended life is a dwindling
asset. Who would not prefer to live longer while at their peak?
The time we spend asleep contributes little to our lifetime of
experience, thought and action. Dreaming doesn't seem to add
much. Some brain lesions and monoamine oxidase (MAO) inhibitor
medications even completely abolish dreams without making any
apparent difference. Could we reduce the duration of sleep (both
REM and nonREM) while maintaining its benefits for the brain,
whatever they might be? I propose that we do need to sleep,
but not as long as we do. The duration of sleep may be an outdated
adaptation to prehistoric ecological constraints that no longer
all vertebrates sleep (and invertebrates at least have quiet
time). However, the duration of sleep varies wildly across species,
from less than 1 hour to 18+ hours a day. For instance, rodents
sleep between 8 and 17 hours, primates between 7 and 18 hours.
Elephants and giraffes sleep 3-5 hours, squirrels 16-17 and bats
20 hours. The newborn of most species sleep more of each day
than the adults, except that newborn whales and dolphins don't
sleep at all. Within a species, the inter-individual variation
of adaptively valuable traits is thought to be quite limited.
Yet some people, in some families, habitually sleep only 2-4
hours a night, and function well for longer each day. Perhaps
constraining the duration of sleep is not an adaptive priority
categorically distinct roles for sleep are: (1) maintaining the
neuronal circuitry, (2) fostering learning, (3) keeping the organism
out of trouble.
Given its ubiquity among vertebrates and other phyla, any neurometabolic
benefit of sleep must be very general and basic. If the needs
of the brain determine the duration of sleep, its duration should
vary systematically with some fundamental neurological variable,
such as absolute or relative size of the brain, its energy utilization,
the sophistication of behavioral control, or the need to replenish
some key neurotransmitter. No such co-variation appears to exist.
The presumed role of sleep in learning is based on continuing
rehearsal. Rather than being an adaptation, the learning benefit
may be a fortuitous result of the brain's continuing activity
during sleep, while it is receiving no fresh information. Since
the neuronal show must go on, recently acquired patterns of firing
gain priority and are "rehearsed". Whether the memories
are useful or useless, they are automatically rehearsed. In any
case, the suggested benefit of sleep for human learning cannot
be generalized to species that make a living without learning
anything much, and yet require sleep.
The substantial differences between people and the enormous difference
between species in how long they typically sleep suggest that
sleep also serves a species-specific ecological function. This
is sleep's other role; sleep conserves energy and keeps animals
out of trouble. It takes the members of each species a minimum
time per day to make a living, that is, secure their personal
survival and take advantage of any reproductive opportunity.
This challenge is met anew every day. On this view, how much
of the day is needed to meet adaptive goals determines the duration
of the default option of sleep.
activity when the day's housekeeping is done would prolong the
animal's exposure to the hazards that lurk in the environment,
without contributing further to basic survival and reproductive
needs. Many species cannot do anything useful in the dark (and
some not in the light). They gain nothing from expending more
than basal metabolic energy at that time. The genetic imperative
to sleep during a predetermined time of day and for a predetermined
duration (or even hibernate), takes care of all that. Thus extended
sleep time would be a function of the interaction between the
individual and its ecology.
need time for hunting; how much depends on attributes of the
predator and the prey, such as speed, strength and population
density. Herbivore prey needs a minimum time to graze, depending
on the animal's bulk and the accessibility of food. How the remains
of the day are spent would depend on how readily a secure haven
can be found.
is notoriously conservative, and it conserves the genetically
driven imperative to sleep. The imperative to sleep is subjectively
experienced as antecedent sleepiness, and the fatigue and dysphoric
feeling after too little sleep. My thesis is that these feelings
do not arise unavoidably from the economy of the brain, but are
genetically imposed adaptations. Should a species' ecology undergo
radical change, and making a living become sharply easier or
more difficult, natural selection will in time reshape sleep
human culture evolves too quickly. Since artificial lighting
was introduced, the dark no longer constrains what people can
do. Since human activities
are oriented as much to future as to immediate goals, all hours
of the day have become potentially useful. Further, we have more
effective means to secure ourselves than curling up in a quiet
place and sleeping. So if a sizeable portion of the adaptation
to sleep has the role of a security saving placeholder, then
it would be safe to relax that portion of the sleep constraint.
dictatorial "sleep genes", when identified, need to
be modified to require a shorter sleep duration, and the circadian
clock genes need to be reset. Will the state of genetic engineering
become sufficiently advanced to make this prospect, though less
than a sure thing, more than a pipe dream? The good news comes
with the fruit fly's sleep, which is uncannily like ours; a mutation
in a gene called Shaker reduces the fly's natural sleep duration
by two-thirds, from about 12 to about 4 hours within 24, without
detriment to the fly's well-being. The bad news is that these
mutated flies don't live long. Nonetheless, I am optimistic.
Director, Festival Della Scienzia, Genova
the Achievements of Science Allow Us to Critically
Understand and Judge the Reality We Live In
and Knowledge gave us an extremely powerful key for understanding
our world, and at the same time turned it in a more livable
and interesting place, full of imagination, ideas and great
beings have been more and more capable of facing the challenges
given to them by their own nature, and in this adventure of
research and exploration they can sense the meaning of their
own existence, between past and future, known and unknown.
optimistic dimension has been decisive in order to overcome
obstacles and tragedies, limits and fears, even within the
most negative and pessimistic views of the world.
"Optimism" comes from the latin word "optimum" (excellent,
perfect), so it has to be understood not as uncritical view of
reality and its phenomena, but as a farseeing attitude of longing
to excellence, to perfection, to beauty, to poetry, and as an
attempt of overcoming oneself, understanding oneself and the
others, the world and the universe as much as possible.
more than yesterday, an optimistic person thinks to the good
that has been created and that can be produced—as Leibaniz
used to say—even against the background of nowadays
huge disparities that afflict humanity, disparities regarding
economy, technology but also knowledge.
though today, much more than yesterday, we are able to critically
understand and judge the reality we live in, thanks to the
achievements of science, to the explosive (but also more democratic)
development of communication, to the spread of technology,
the globalization of knowledge and so on.
optimistic means being able to see the extraordinary progress
achieved in these last centuries and the incredible cultural
diffusion that has derived from it. Progress is a problematic
concept nowadays, but if it is interpreted and used in the
right way, it can still bring us to even greater goals than
the ones we already achieved by now.
have to think to and build together new connections between
thought and intuition, exactness and imagination, research
and creativity, art and science, which are together (and only
together) the driving forces behind a new Humanism. A more
educated, open-minded and pluralistic Humanism. The beauty
and the depth of our thought have to become unavoidable elements
of our life. Science should speak a language which is understandable
"beautiful" and has to come nearer and nearer to Arts.
Calvino used to say that Galileo was the greatest narrator
of Italian Literature, thanks to his extraordinary ability
of writing. And it is just this talent that made him even more
important and greater figure of the world culture. Galileo
could hardly be optimistic in front of the persecutions of
the Holy Inquisition, but thanks to his genius and to his culture
he could aspire and achieve excellence, and therefore a creative
dimension of his life, work and study.
we must have a critical optimism, alert and participatory,
able to catch the great opportunities that we have and also
to face the risks we are taking. We have to stand really on
the side of knowledge, taking courageous decisions and choices
for our future and for the future of the ones who will get
the world by inheritance from us.
GOLOMB, MD, PhD
Professor of Medicine, University
of California, San Diego
Reforming Scientific and Medical Publishing Via the Internet
am optimistic that the ascendance of open access postings
of articles to the internet will transform scientific and
medical publishing; and that a number of profound problems—some
particular to medical publishing—will be assuaged as a result.
Currently, it can be impossible to gauge the true balance
of risks and benefits of medical treatments from a reading
of the literature. Frighteningly, this is true too for those
doctors who ground their clinical decisions upon a reading
of it. I will review some aspects of the problem; and then
relay grounds for possible optimism.
as is probably true in all fields, bias occurs in favor of
existing orthodoxy. This is arguably more troubling in medicine
since the orthodoxy is in turn influenced, as has been learned,
by the profusion of articles favorable to their products that
are ghostwritten by the pharmaceutical industry, or by the
for-profit MECCs (Medical Education and Communication Companies)
that industry hires for this purpose. These companies in turn
pay physicians and pharmacists—including favorably
disposed "thought leaders" whom they seek to succor
—to be the listed authors, extinguishing any appearance of
connection to industry for the favorable views propounded.
This provides the appearance that many independent parties
are in agreement in their favorable representations of the
evidence. Crisply said, advertising is published as though
it were science.
These problems are exacerbated by bias arising from direct
conflict of interest. Conflict of interest is endemic in medical
research; and articles about a class of drug have been shown
to be dramatically more likely to be favorable when authored
by persons with ties to industry than when authored by persons
without such conflicts. Conflicts for authors thus
appear to foster submission of industry-favorable articles.
Conflicts for reviewers may also foster rejection
of industry-unfavorable ones. (As elsewhere, reviewers are
drawn from the pool of authors.) Moreover, reviewers are seldom
tasked to disclose conflicts, and they remain anonymous, precluding
repercussions for biased reviews.
factors are aggravated, possibly dwarfed, by pharmaceutical
company influence on medical publishing—further aligning
medical publishing with medical advertising. Medical journals
are not the independent arbiters of article quality one might
wish. They are businesses and derive their revenue from pharmaceutical
company advertising, and from sales to industry of glossy reprints
of industry-favorable articles, at inflated prices. For some
medical journals, profits reportedly number in the millions,
providing high stakes.
least three former Editors in Chief of major US and British
medical journals have penned books decrying the inimical impact
of industry influence on medicine. One has to
ask why, in medical journals, advertising is accepted
(just because it is available for the taking); and whether
the journal's bottom line is a proper consideration in dictating
what is published, in settings where lives are on the line.
whence the optimism? One means to propel optimism is to suggest
a tactic that might enable its fruition. Briefly, I suggest
that papers be published on the Internet, reviews be submitted
by named reviewers; and that others rate (and review) the
reviews. Both papers and reviewers receive ratings that are
updated on an ongoing basis. While this won't protect
against biased submissions, it will protect against biased
rejections—and at least enable a voice for original
or contrary perspectives.
is probable that more bad science will be released. However
the system provides a means for improving poor quality work;
and avoiding having to view what remains substandard.
importantly, more good science may be published—and
perhaps, more great science. As
Nobelist Sydney Brenner (who famously authored an article entitled "Moron peer review")
has observed, many of his co-Nobelists' prize winning
work was initially rejected through the review process.
work by its nature may defy conventional wisdom. One might
be drawn to wonder: is there other work that would have revolutionized
science and merited a Prize, that languishes unpublished? And
that does so because authors at some point ceased to persevere
in submission efforts after some number of rejections, or finally
deemed the effort to publish futile?
back to the many great discoveries of which we have heard
that were initially ridiculed: H. pylori as a contributor
to ulcers; handwashing as a means to reduce puerperal fever;
the sun as the center around which the earth revolves, to name
a few. What might this imply for the possibility that major
discoveries may be pilloried into nonpublication by peer review?
There is no means to estimate the fraction of Nobel-caliber
efforts that achieve publication, as the denominator remains
the benefits of a new, Internet-based approach may be particularly
great for the most important work: work that challenges existing
orthodoxy; work that defines a new field and fits no existing
journal; work that crosses boundaries to other disciplines—with
their own often arbitrary conventions and in-groups; or that
demands knowledge from two or more disciplines; science that
is ahead of its time, that entails many advances at once or
that founds new work on an understanding of relevant material
that others do not yet have. Or, too, work that runs counter
to vested interest groups—particularly but hardly exclusively
in the arena of medicine, where the potent impact of industry
influence on information has been the subject of increasing
alarm—and where disparities between literature and
truth may cost patients' lives.
instance from mathematics supports the premise that current
convention, requiring articles to be published in peer-reviewed
journal venues, may inhibit promulgation of at least some
of the very most important work. The Poincaré conjecture—a
holy grail in mathematics—was recently proved by a Russian
mathematician who posted his work on the Internet but refused
the bother of submitting his work to a journal. Other cases
can be adduced favoring the proposition that some among persons
capable of propelling major advances—which often entails
rejecting conventions in science—are also constitutionally
inclined to reject the conventions, petty obstacles and distractions
that attend the current model of scientific publishing. And
perhaps they do so with justifiable contempt.
many will defend the current system—not least
those who fare well within it, and who benefit disproportionately
from it. And surely there will be problems to overcome in the
new system. Orthodoxy, in-groups, and interest groups will
continue to influence the literature. Those who serve these
masters will likely submit negative reviews of articles (and
of reviewers) who do not toe the respective party lines. But
at least now the contrarian positions will achieve release,
reviewers can be held accountable for biased reviews, and unacknowledged
conflicts can be exposed in instances when others know of them.
short, I am optimistic that online publishing, with a review-the-reviewer
system akin to that proposed here, will provide more voice
and venue for science that may now have the highest need—and the lowest prospect—of being aired.
Physicist; Albert Einstein Professor
of Science, Princeton University; Coauthor, Endless
Universe: A New History of the Cosmos
am optimistic that there will be a historic breakthrough in
our understanding of the universe in the next five years that
will be remembered as one of the most significant of the millennium.
I would also give better-than-even odds that there will be
more than one discovery of this magnitude.
optimism is sparked by a remarkable coincidence: the
simultaneous maturing of several unrelated technologies, each
of which could open a new window on the cosmos. Historically,
every new technology is a harbinger of great discovery. Consider,
then, that at least a handful of major advances will occur
within just five years:
detecting of dark matter:
decades of gradual progress, physicists will finally build
the first detectors sensitive enough to detect dark matter
particles directly, if they consist of weakly interacting massive particles
(WIMPs), as many physicists suspect.
the nature of dark energy:
their names sound similar, the only quality dark matter and
dark energy have in common is that they are both invisible. Dark
matter consists of massive particles that gravitationally
attract one another and clump into clouds that seed the
formation of galaxies.
energy is gravitationally self-repulsive, so it tends to smooth
itself out. When it is the dominant form of energy, as it is
today, dark energy causes the expansion of the universe to
composition of dark energy is one of the great mysteries
of science, with profound implications for both fundamental
physics and cosmology.
the next five years, arrays of novel wide-field telescopes
will be constructed that are programmed to rapidly scan large
fractions of the sky to search for astronomical phenomena that
vary rapidly with time. The arrays will be used to search for
distant supernovae (exploding stars), whose brightness
and colors can be used to judge the distance and recessional
speed of their host galaxies. From these measurements,
astronomers can measure precisely the accelerated expansion
of the universe, a primary means of distinguishing different
theories of dark energy.
the same time, in the laboratory, physicists will be trying
to detect changes in the gravitational force when masses are
placed at close proximity or tiny changes in the strength of
the electromagnetic force with time, other effects predicted
by some theories of dark energy. These measurements will significantly
narrow the candidates for dark energy, perhaps identifying
a unique possibility.
the big bang and the origin of the large-scale structure
of the universe:
conventional wisdom is that the universe sprang into existence
14 billion years ago in a big bang and that a period of exponentially
rapid inflationary expansion accounts for its large-scale structure.
However, the last decade has seen the emergence of alternative
possibilities, such as the cyclic model of the universe.
the cyclic model, the big bang is not the beginning
but, rather, an event that has been repeating every trillion
years, extending far into the past. Borrowing ideas
from string theory, the cyclic model proposes that each
bang is a collision between our three-dimensional world
and another three-dimensional world along an extra spatial
dimension. Each bang creates new hot matter and radiation
that begins a new perio of expansion, cooling, galaxy
formation and life, but space and time exist before and
after the bang.
large-scale structure of the universe and the pattern of galaxies
are set by events that occurred about a cycle ago, before the
bang, just as events occurring today are setting the structure
for the cycle to come. Although the inflationary
and cyclic pictures predict distributions of galaxies,
matter and radiation that are indistinguishable, their
predictions for the production of gravitational waves in
the early universe are exponentially different.
waves are ripples in space produced during inflation or
near the beginning of a new cycle that propagate through
the universe and distort space like undulations traveling
through jello. These cosmic gravitational waves are
too weak to be detected directly, but experimental cosmologists
throughout the world are mounting ground- and balloon-based
experiments to search for their imprint on the polarization
pattern of cosmic microwave background radiation produced
in the first 380,000 years after the bang.
results will not only affect our view of our cosmic origin,
but our future as well. The conventional big bang inflationary
theory predicts our universe is headed towards the cold
oblivion of eternal expansion—a whimper—but
the cyclic model predicts a new hot big bang.
detecting gravitational waves:
first window on the universe using something other than electromagnetic
waves could be open within the next five years. After
decades of developments, the LIGO (Laser Interferometer
Gravitational Wave Observatory), with one detector in Livingston,
Louisiana, and one in Hanford, Washington, has a plausible
chance of directly detecting gravitational waves, beginning
a new era in astronomy.
observatory is designed to detect stronger gravitational waves
than those produced in the early universe, such as waves generated
by the violent collision of neutron stars and black holes in
our own galaxy. However,
this frontier is so fresh and unexplored that there could
well be unanticipated cosmic sources of strong gravitational
waves to be discovered that could cause us to reassess
our understanding of the universe.
in fundamental physics and direct production of dark matter:
Large Hadron Collider at the Center for European Research
(CERN) in Geneva, Switzerland, is set to begin operation
this year. This facility consists of a powerful particle
accelerator that will reproduce collisions of the type
that occurred within the first pico-second after the big
bang, carrying the investigation of fundamental physics
over an important energy threshold where new phenomena
are anticipated. For example, physicists hope
to discover a spectrum of new "supersymmetric" particles,
confirming a key prediction of string theory, and also
WIMPs that may comprise the dark matter.
impact will be profound. As we enter 2007, we
understand the composition of less than five percent of the universe;
we do not understand how space, time, matter and energy were
created; and we cannot predict where the universe is headed. In
the next five years, we may witness the historic resolution of
one or more of these issues. I have my personal bet on
what the individual outcomes will be; but the only prediction
I will reveal here is that, with the opening of so many new
windows on the cosmos, we are sure to discover something unanticipated
Neuroscientist, Stanford University, Author, A
With The Right Sort Of Priorities And Human Engineering
(Whatever That Phrase Means), We Can Be Biased Towards
Making Us/Them Dichotomies Far More Benign
A truly discouraging thing to me is how easily humans see the
dichotomized between Us and Them. This comes through in all sorts
—social anthropology, lord of the flies, prison experiments,
(all those cultures where the word for the members of that culture
translates into "People," thus making a contrast
with the non-people living
in the next valley).
a neurobiologist, I'm particularly impressed with and
discouraged by one
finding relevant to this. There's a part of the brain called
that has lots to do with fear and anxiety and aggression. Functional
brain imaging studies of humans show that the amygdala becomes
metabolically active when we look at a scary face (even when
the face is
flashed up so quickly that we aren't consciously aware
of seeing it). And
some recent work—solid, done by top people, independently
suggests that the amygdala can become activated when we view
the face of
someone from another race. The Them as scary, and the Them being
whose skin color is real different from our own.
an upsetting finding.
But right on the heels of those studies are follow-ups showing
picture is more complicated. The "Other skin color = scared
amygdala = the Other" can be modified by experience. "Experience," can
how diverse of a world you grew up in. More diversity, and the
likely to become activated in that circumstance. And also, "experience,"
can be whether, shortly before your amygdala is put through the
imaging paces, you are subtly biased to think about people categorically
as individuals. If you're cued towards individuating, your
doesn't light up.
Thus, it seems quite plausible to me that we are hard-wired
Us/Them distinctions and not being all that nice to the Them.
But what is
anything but hard-wired is who counts as an Us and as a Them
—we are so
easily manipulated into changing those categories.
optimistic that with the right sort of priorities and human
engineering (whatever that phrase means), we can be biased towards
Us/Them dichotomies far more benign than they tend to be now.
making all of us collectively feel like an Us with Them being
aliens that may attack us some day. Or making the Them to be
shitty, intolerant people without compassion.
I'm sure not optimistic that we'll
soon be having political, religious
or cultural leaders likely to move us effectively in that direction.
to deflate that optimism.
Psychologist, UC-Berkeley; Coauthor, The
Scientist In the Crib
Children Will Be Born
New children will be born. This may seem rather mundane compared
to some of the technological breakthroughs that other scientists
have focused on. After all, children have been born for as long
as the species has been around. But for human beings children
are linked to optimism in a way that runs deeper than just the
biological continuation of the species.
after all, isn't essentially a matter of the
rational assessment of the future—it's an attitude
rather than a judgment. And it's the most characteristically
human attitude, the one that's built into our DNA. The
greatest human evolutionary advantage is our innate ability to
imagine better alternatives to the current world—possible
universes that could exist in the future—and to figure
out how to make them real. It's the ability we see in its
earliest form in the fantastic pretend play of even the youngest
in fact, everything in the room I write in now—not
only the computer and the electric light but the right-angled
wall and the ceramic cup and the woven cloth was once imaginary—no
more than an optimistic pipe dream. And I myself, a scientist,
a writer, and woman literally could not have existed in the evolutionary
Pleistocene past, or even in the only slightly less neolithic
atmosphere of the universities of fifty years ago.
to change the physical and social world in unprecedented and
unpredictable ways is deeply bound up with our characteristically
extended human childhood—that long period of protected
immaturity. The radical changes that have transformed human lives
for the better never could have been accomplished in a single
change the world bit by bit, generation by generation. We
pass on our own innovations and the new worlds they create to
our children—who imagine new alternatives themselves. We
work to imagine alternatives that will make our lives better,
but, even more impressively, over generations we can revise what
we mean by leading a better life. Our moral lives are no more
determined by our evolutionary past than our physical or social
I can see
only small glimpses of the future and they are all heavily
rooted in the past. But it's a good rational induction
that my children and their children and all the new children
to be born will see the world in new ways, discover new possibilities
and find new ways to make them real, in ways that I literally
can't imagine now.
Cofounder and Director, The Science Network;
Neuroscience Researcher, Center for Brain and Cognition,
UCSD; Coauthor, The Origin of Minds; Creator
PBS Science Programs
Women of the 110th Congress
am optimistic about the record number of women who will come
to Washington in January 2007 as members of the 110th Congress —16
Senators and 71 Representatives. Only 20 years ago, there were
just two female Senators and 23 Representatives. Now, the Speaker
of the House is a woman, second in the line of succession to
the Presidency. Why do I think this Ascent of Women is cause
for optimism? Because I believe we need a lot more social smarts—particularly
empathy—in the corridors of power and the brains of
our political leaders; and current evidence indicates that,
in general, the female brain is intrinsically a more proficient
example. About a year ago, Tania Singer (then at University
College London, now at the University of Zurich) published
a study on the neural processes underlying empathy. As one
rather lurid headline described the work: "Revenge Replaces
Empathy in Male Brain. Watching bad guys suffer lights up the
mind's reward centers for men." The experiment involved
imaging the brains of a group of male and female volunteers
while they played a monetary investment game based on trust.
A few of the players were actors, planted to play fairly or
the actors were zapped with a mild electric shock, while the
other players watched. When an actor who had played fair was
shocked, both female and male volunteers felt their pain: fMRI
images showed empathic activation of pain-related areas of
their brains—specifically in
the insular and anterior cingulate cortices. But when the unfair
actor was shocked, the sexes reacted differently. The females
still showed a surge of empathy; the males didn't. Instead,
their reward areas lit up. The German word for this feeling—schadenfreude—roughly
translates as taking pleasure in the misery of others. The
researchers' conclusion, based on the scanning and on the comments
from post-experiment questionnaires, was that "men expressed
a stronger desire for revenge than women".
years ago, in a PBS program called The Sexual Brain,
I explored male-female differences. It was quite clear then
(and has since become even more evident) that anatomically,
chemically and functionally the brains of men and women have
some significant differences. To what extent these variations
drive or map on to differences in cognition and behavior remains
controversial (ask Larry Summers). But we know, for example,
that men have a proportionally larger amygdala than women and
women have a proportionally larger prefrontal cortex.
evidence, too, that women have a proportionally larger anterior
cingulate cortex (ACC) and insula than men. From quite recent
brain imaging studies, we now know that these areas are important
components of the circuitry that underpins our ability to process
complex social emotions, ‘read' the faces and minds of
the people we encounter as we navigate through social space,
understand and predict their behavior, make moral judgments
and empathize. (Of course, everything I am saying should have
the usual scientific safety net of caveats—the differences
exist at the level of populations, not individuals; cultural
factors play an important role; etc.)
what does this have to do with my optimism about the women
of the 110th Congress? Would women govern differently than
exactly the question that Geneva Overholser posed in The
New York Times in 1987 just after Margaret Thatcher won
a new term as British Prime Minister. Overholser noted that
—like the few other women who were national leaders—operated
in a male-dominated political arena and basically behaved no
differently in office from men.
that be true," Overholser asked, "if the number of
women in high office better reflected their share of the population?
Would they then govern differently, feeling more comfortable
and secure as women?" She turned to the example of Norway,
where the Prime Minister—Gro Harlem Brundtland—was
a woman (and, incidentally, a physician). Of 17 Cabinet ministers,
seven were women. And the consequences were dramatic. One example:
Despite huge spending cuts, the Norwegian government actually increased child
care subsidies and paid parental leave. In Norway's case, the
answer to Overholser's question was: "Probably, if enough
came to power."
Sexual Brain, I asked: "Is it wise for males to
confront each other across an arms control negotiating table?
Is global security enhanced in an atmosphere charged with
testosterone?" Today, more women have had seats at that
negotiating table—think of Madeleine Albright and
Condoleeza Rice in the United States, Margaret Beckett (first
female Foreign Secretary) in the United Kingdom, Angela Merkel
(first female Chancellor and, incidentally, a physicist)
in Germany. But the questions remain. Is it inherently bad
that males experience schadenfreude—or is
a taste for revenge a valuable prerequisite for dispensing
justice? Is it admirable that females have more empathy
for a cheater in pain —or a regrettable sign
of weakness? Kinder maybe. Gentler maybe. But the best way
to run a country?
am optimistic that the answer to questions like these will
eventually emerge from the synergy of science and society.
Our relatively recent ability to image activity inside the
human brain is a giant step forward and will allow us to better
understand individual differences. I view a science of empathy
as a realistic prospect: data will replace simplistic slogans
(like Men are from Mars; Women are from Venus) as a basis for
making social decisions. And I am optimistic that the social
sophistication that a larger number of female legislators can
bring to the 110th US Congress can help create "a more
perfect union, insure domestic tranquility and secure the blessings
of liberty for ourselves and our posterity".
Senior Editor, Discover Magazine; Adjunct
Professor, Science Journalism, NYU; Author: God
in the Equation: How Einstein Transformed Religion
Our Conceptual Myopia
speaking, I am optimistic that the world's current
crises look terrifyingly large mainly because of our conceptual
myopia. It is practically a truism to say that every era tends
to regard its troubles as uniquely daunting, but I think that accelerating
news cycles make the current generation particularly prone to this
error of judgment. Making my best attempt to put on corrective
goggles and take the longer view, I see a half-dozen areas where
we are on the verge of major advances in our ability to expand
our control over our environment and ourselves, in way that will
be largely or entirely beneficial.
• I am optimistic that technology will soon show practical ways
to eradicate the twin problems of carbon emissions and fossil-fuel
scarcity. In the nearer term, carbon dioxide will follow the path
of CFCs, acid-rain-causing sulfur oxides, and nearly all automobile
tailpipe emissions. Nay-sayers warned that all of these would be
difficult and economically disruptive to tackle; in every case,
the nay-sayers were roundly proven wrong. Carbon sequestration
is the most obvious technology for offsetting carbon emissions.
Here's a firm prediction: If
the world's leading economies set tough emissions standards for CO2, or
establish a serious carbon tax, industry will find astonishingly inexpensive
ways to comply within a few years.
ahead, new energy sources will begin to make serious contributions
to the world economy long before fossil fuels run out. My bet
is still on fusion energy, despite its perfect, five-decade record
of never fulfilling any of its promises. I seriously doubt, though,
that commercially viable fusion energy will look anything like
the huge and hideously expensive magnetic-confinement test machines
(like ITER) now being built or planned. More likely it will take
the shape of a compact, laser- or radio-driven linear accelerator
using exotic nuclear reactions that spit out protons, not neutrons;
send the protons flying through a copper coil and you have direct
electricity conversion, with no boiler, no steam, no turbine, no
I am optimistic that we are on the verge of developing the tools
to program biological systems as effortlessly as we program digital
ones. Synthetic biology, a field spearheaded by George Church,
Drew Endy, and Jay Keasling, will be key to attaining this goal—and
it is now in transition from theory to reality. Rather than snipping
genes from one creature and clumsily inserting them into another,
future biotechnicians will consult a master database of DNA sequences
and specify the traits they want, whether to insert into an existing
organism or to create in a brand-new one designed from the ground
up. (A corollary is that these tools will finally allow effective
stem-cell therapy, which leads to a related prediction: Thirty
years from now, the current agonies over the ethics of stem-cell
therapy will look as quaint as the hand-wringing over "test
tube babies" in the 1970s.) Synthetic biology in its fully
realized form will also be a dangerous weapon. A related part of
my optimism is that it—like electricity, like radio, like all
genetic research so far—will prove far more useful for positive
applications than for negative ones.
I am optimistic that young adults today will, on average, live
to 120 and will remain healthy and vigorous until their final
years. Researchers like Leonard Guarente, David Sinclair, and
Cynthia Kenyon are zeroing in on the chemical and genetic basis
of aging. Immortality is a long way off, but drugs and genetic
therapies that hold back age-related diseases are coming soon.
Treatments that slow the aging process as a whole will follow
closely behind. Ultimately
these will lead to a wholesale reordering of the pace of life
and the social structures based around certain biological milestones.The
child-bearing years may extend into the 60s; people may routinely
continue working into their 80s or beyond. With this expanded
timeline will come all kinds of new possibilities, including
vastly expanded periods of intellectual creativity and a softening
of the irrational behaviors that arise from the universal fear
I am optimistic that the longer life of the body will be accompanied
by enhanced powers of the brain. We already live in world where
it is getting harder and harder to forget. A simple Google search
often revives long-lost trivia, historical experiences, even
the names of long-dead relatives. What we have today is but a
tiny taste of what lies ahead. Computing power is now so cheap,
and wireless communication so effortless, that a person could
easily wear a microphone (or even a low-res video camera) at
all times and compile a digital database of every word he or
the future, many people will choose to do so; we will all have
personalized, searchable databases at our commands. Rapid advances
in brain prostheses mean that soon we will be able to access
those databases simply by the power of thought. Within a couple
decades, the information will be beamed back in a form the brain
will be able to hear the playback in much the manner that deaf
people can now hear the world with cochlear implants. Vision is
slightly more difficult but it too will be reverse engineered.
That will undoubtedly give space exploration a tremendous boost.
Earthbound scientists will be able to "inhabit" robotic
explorers on other worlds, and any interested participant will
be able to log on passively to experience the adventure. Humans
will venture into space physically as well but at first that will
happen primarily for sport, I expect.
I am optimistic that researchers, aided by longer careers and
computer assistance, will crack the great twin mysteries of physics:
the nature of gravity and the possibility of other dimensions.
Here I'm talking not just about theoretical advances, as
may occur at the Large Hadron Collider after it revs up in late '07,
that could bolster the theory that gravity, unlike the other forces,
has the ability to transmit out of the three dimensions of human
experience. I am also talking about a kookier optimism that our
discoveries will have practical consequences. It may be possible
to build instruments that can sense universes lying outside of
our dimensions. It may be possible to manipulate gravity, turning
it down where convenient (to launch a rocket, for instance) and
cranking it up where desired. It may even be possible to create
a new universe as a laboratory experiment—the ultimate empirical
investigation of the Big Bang that started our universe.
Finally, I am optimistic that with all of these intellectual
and material achievements will come a science-based spiritual
awakening. Back in the 1930s Albert Einstein spoke of a "cosmic religious
feeling" and tried to convince the public (with painfully
little success) that scientists are every bit as spiritual as are
the world's religious leaders. It may not look that way now,
but I think Einstein will soon be vindicated. Longer, more connected
lives will eat away at the religion of fear, the rudimentary form
of faith rooted in anxiety about loneliness and the apparent absoluteness
important, the next round of scientific discoveries promise a
powerful new sense of our connection to the rest of the universe,
and even to universes beyond our own. One of the most potent
knocks on science is that it, unlike religion, offers no sense
of purpose. That has never been true—what greater purpose is
there than intellectual exploration, the key trait distinguishing
us from the other animals—but now more than ever science
has a chance to make its case. It needs to develop more of a
communal structure. It needs to develop a humane language, expressing
its findings explicitly as triumphs of human achievement. It
needs to celebrate our ever-expanding dominion over nature while
articulating a humble appreciation that nature is, indeed, where
we all came from.
all, science needs a face, a representative (or representatives)
as charismatic as Pope Benedict XVI or, er, Tom Cruise, who can
get rid of all those "it"s
in the pervious sentences. Right now, the faces of science are
selected by book sales, television specials, and pure self-promotion;
its elected leaders, like the heads of scientific societies, rarely
function as public figures. Surely there is a better way. Any suggestions?
Journalist, La Stampa;
Italy Correspondent, Science
Radiodurans and Teletransportation
science journalist and supporter, surely I will be optimistic
for 2007: among others, there are three main reasons
which happened during 2006 which strengthen my convictions.
the quantum teletransportation between light and matter, experienced
in Copenhagen last October. This is not the first time so particular
a phenomenon is proved to be real but the experiment, held at
the Niels Bohr Institutet, opens new and fascinating perspectives
in the field of quantum computation: through the entanglement’s
process is now possible to stock quantum data; with this discovery,
the short future might be even more intriguing.
a bacterium called “Deinococcus Radiodurans” could
lengthen our own lives. This tiny form of life is able to survive
unthinkable conditions, like a strong desiccation or a nuclear
explosion: the reasons why all that could be possible were a
real scientific puzzle, until Miroslav Radman and his French
team have found a convincing explanation. Studies have to continue
but adding other years to the human race’s average is no
longer a dream.
last, a Fields medal has been assigned for the solution of the
so-called Poincaré conjecture: an unsolved enigma for
more than a century has been revealed and that makes me think
the next years will be a good period for mathematics.
if you need some optimism, you should just take a look at science:
I am certain that this new century will overtake the former one.