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on June 17, 2009
The editor asked prominent young scientists from a variety of fields to talk about the future of their disciplines and the result is a fascinating and diverse collection about future breakthroughs in and challenges facing scientists.

Subjects covered include neurology, climatology, paleoanthropology, biology, but what unifies them all is an interest in what impact future discoveries will have on humanity. For instance, How does recent research into the brain affect our understanding of morality?, or time?, language acquisition, or how we think about things like physical or temporal orientation? Will there be a huge human migration to the northern climes as global warming makes the earth's climate hotter? What would places like Northern Canada be like in that scenario? There's also a really interesting essay on mirror neurons, and how our minds develop ethics.

I highly recommend this book to people interested in a smart book on current, cutting-edge scientific trends.
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The main difference between this and other science anthologies that I have read is 1) the essays are original, written especially for this volume; and 2) the scientists are relatively young not yet at the pinnacle of their careers.

Max Brockman believes that "it's important to engage with the thinking of the next generation, to better understand not just what is going on in our own time but what issues society will face in the future. This exercise is especially valuable in science, where so many of the important discoveries are made by those in emerging generations." (p. xiii) Consequently he "approached some of today's leading scientists and asked them to name some of the rising stars in their respective disciplines: those who, in their research, are tackling some of science's toughest questions and raising new ones." (pp. xii-xiv) The result is this book with essays from 18 scientists in fields ranging from cosmology to microbiology.

In the first essay UCLA climatologist Laurence C. Smith asks "Will We Decamp for the Northern Rim?" His answer is that he does "not advise buying acreage in Labrador," but "maybe in Michigan." What is clear is that the north is warming up and making "land that is hardly livable [in]to land that is somewhat livable." He sees the US and Canada as the two countries "best positioned for expansion" into what has been known as the lands of the "minus-forty" degrees. Central to his piece is the prediction that north of the 45th parallel "temperatures will rise at nearly double the global average...and precipitation will increase sharply as well."

In the second essay neuroscientist Christian Keysers argues that "mirror neurons" in our brain that enable us mimic and feel what other are doing and feeling merely by watching--something we do automatically--strongly suggests that humans are ethical by nature. He believes that our brain circuits "lay the foundation for an intuitive altruism."

Philosopher Nick Bostrom looks at enhancing human beings so that we might be better acclimated to the modern world instead of the savannahs of Africa on which we evolved.

Physicist Sean Carroll explores entropy and the arrow of time in the cosmos while physicist Stephon H.S. Alexander grapples with dark energy.

There are essays on the social development of the brain in adolescence by Sarah-Jayne Blakemore; on using brain imaging to explore social thought (Jason P. Mitchell); how language shapes the way we think (Lera Broditsky); on memory enhancement (Sam Cooke); and so on to whether specialization in science is making it impossible for scientists in different field to communicate (Gavin Schmidt, who says that the last person able to keep up with all the sciences lived in the eighteenth century).

Of particular interest to me are the essays by David M. Eagleman on "Brain Time," and by Vanessa Woods and Brian Hare on how humans came "down from the trees" and why no one followed. In the former, Eagleman addresses the familiar phenomenon that "time 'slows down' during brief, dangerous events such as car accidents and robberies." (p. 159) I've had that experience myself and have tried to account for it. What Eagleman discovered is that because of the emergency situation we take in much more information about what is happening than we usually do and this "higher density of data" makes the event appear to last longer. (p. 161) This is similar to the sense that for a child the day is long and for the old person the day is short. The day seems longer for the child because so much of what the child is experiencing is new and requires close attention, whereas for a person of senior years much of what happens has been seen before and requires only the most cursory attention.

In the latter essay, Woods and Hare explore the canine-human relationship and show how dogs are better able to read humans than are our closer relatives, chimpanzees. Dogs were able to find hidden objects in an experiment when humans would gaze at or point to the hiding place or even tap on the hiding place. But chimps have not the habit of paying that much attention to humans and would just miss the clues. Woods and Hare ask why this should be and answer: "One idea is that dogs live with us, so over thousands of hours of interacting with us, they learn to read our body language. Another idea is that the pack lifestyle and cooperative hunting of wolves, the canids from which all dogs evolved, made all canids, dogs included, more in tune with social cues." (p. 177)

Woods and Hare also report on an experiment by the Russian scientist Dmitri Belyaev who raised some forty generations of foxes, selecting those most friendly to humans in each generation. The foxes "became incredibly friendly toward humans. Whenever they saw people, they barked, wagged their tails, sniffed the people, and licked their faces. But even stranger were the physical changes...." Their ears "became floppy" and their "tails turned curly." "In short, they looked and behaved remarkably like their close relative the domestic dog." (pp. 178-179)

Incidentally Max Brockman is the son of John Brockman who has edited a number of first class science anthologies. "What's Next" continues that excellent tradition.

(Note: Thirteen of my books are now available at Amazon including "Hard Science and the Unknowable.")
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on June 18, 2009
I love reading the Science Times section of the New York Times every Tuesday...when it comes to non-fiction, I enjoy sifting through intelligent sound bytes of information and then deciding how I want to follow up as a reader. In many ways, reading this collection was an enriched version of that experience.

Mr. Brockman's collection of essays introduces the reader to 18 up-and-coming young scientists in widely varied fields. I loved being able to pick and choose which essay to read (I started with #3, Nick Bostrom's "How to Enhance Human Beings").

A few other notes:
*I like the idea of being introduced to up-and-comers in the field
*I thought the table of contents was handled very well -- there's a blurb about the topic of each essay, so it it easy to pick and choose

Within two days I had read all 18 essays -- what a treat!
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VINE VOICEon August 14, 2009
With the exeption of a single essay related to potential areas humanity might relocate in the event of drastic climate change this book mostly focused on neuroscience and almost entirely focused not on what's next but rather what's now.

With that understood I found the book to be particularly interesting.

An essay on motor neurons and the rise of ethical behavior was interesting for its suggestion that motor neurons may have played a pivotol role in the development of human ethics. While I suspect that any complete description of the basis of human ethics will be much more complicated (involving many more systems) it is interesting to consider the role of motor neurons.

Another essay which suggested language delimits human thinking was interesting. It reminded me of work by George Lakoff who suggested that language generally imports physical cognitive systems when describing intellectual endeavors. Examples would be when we speak of the EXTENT of an idea or one person's school of thought PREVAILING OVER another's. That being said I'm still agnostic to say the least that different languages would significantly alter an individual's grasp of reality. But it interesting to think that right to left readers arrange sequential images in a right to left fashion while left to right readers do the reverse.

Also relating to neuroscience I was personally interested in the work which shows the presence of a developmental period which lies at the end of adolescence. That's why the young tend to be greater risk takers and those past their youth tend to hedge their bets. It's not just a question of experience but a physical ability to respond differently to that experience. Though this essay was interesting for what it said I think many more permutations could be developed from this research.

The cosmological essays were interesting but frustrating in how modern science's failure to reconcile the standard model with relativity leaves basic questions about how the universe still unanswered.

Still the same, the book is good reading. For those looking for more provocative material relating to the future I would suggest reading Peter Ward on climate change and Ray Kurzweil on the future of technology, artificial intelligence and humanity.
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on June 18, 2009
If you want a good peek at what is going to be out there in the world of science and technology 10 years from now with out having a flux capacitor then this book is perhaps your best bet. Good read, engaging, thoughtful, and well organized.
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