- Series: Edge Question Series
- Paperback: 374 pages
- Publisher: Harper Perennial (July 15, 2014)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0061436933
- ISBN-13: 978-0061436932
- Product Dimensions: 5.3 x 0.9 x 8 inches
- Shipping Weight: 10.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 13 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,448,514 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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What Are You Optimistic About?: Today's Leading Thinkers on Why Things Are Good and Getting Better (Edge Question Series) 0th Edition
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About the Author
The publisher of the online science salon Edge.org, John Brockman is the editor of Know This, This Idea Must Die, This Explains Everything, This Will Make You Smarter, and other volumes.
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"As an activity, as a state of mind, science is fundamentally optimistic. Science figures out how things work and thus can make them work better. Much of the news is either good news or news that can be made good, thanks to ever deepening knowledge and ever more efficient and powerful tools and techniques. Science, on its frontiers, poses more and ever better questions, ever better put. What are you optimistic about? Why? Surprise us!"
I counted 153 essays. Naturally, with only a half-page to four pages each, they are not greatly detailed. Certain themes caught the attention of many contributors:
1. Organized violence is at an all time low. You wouldn't believe it by listening to the news, but the statistics are clear. In the future, live internet access to anywhere on earth by GPS will cause exploiters of all cloths to have to resort to "Are you going to believe us or your lying eyes."
2. We're on the threshold of an era of unbelievable abundance. We will be able to make a self-replicating machine that will absorb energy through solar cells, eat rocks, and be working for humanity by the millions. We will figure out ways to harness solar energy and not need to use energy sources that pollute the environment.
3. Research in physics has been dominated by string theory in recent years which so far is untestable. New technologies will produce astounding insights very soon. The LHC (proton-proton collider) will advance the Standard Model and will find the Higgs boson or perhaps something unexpected. The new LIGO detectors may find gravitational waves. Arrays of wide-field telescopes on earth are being programmed to rapidly scan the universe. PLANCK is Europe's first space mission to study the relic radiation from the Big Bang, cosmic microwave background radiation. The AUGER array in Argentina will collect and quantify this same radiation. The GLAST satellite will place a telescope in orbit in May, 2008 to study the extreme universe without having to deal with earth's atmosphere. All these projects involve multiple nations and are guaranteed to provide astronomers and physicists with a new plethora of evidence to glean over for years.
4. There are many mentions of religion, only a few of them sympathetic, all of them seeing a decrease in the conflict between science and religion: "The number of people who realize how much of religious belief is non-sensical will continue to grow...I expect to live to see the evaporation of the powerful mystique of religion...a final scientific enlightenment will deal an overdue deathblow to religion and other juvenile superstitions...we will learn to shed the unessential dogmas, rules, definitions, and prejudices that religions have built up over the centuries and millennia...people will begin to see science as a vehicle for mutual understanding and for respecting life. Science will teach people these lessons, instead of simply trying to rob them of their faith and offering nothing in return.
5. Climate change and its solutions draw much attention. The consensus is that technology exists now to reverse the trend with fairly simple engineering techniques. Unfortunately, getting the politicians to steer the world in the correct direction will be like herding cats. At the same time, the political winds are blowing the right way and if we don't pass a tipping point, we will solve the problem. Solar power capturing technologies of the future will eventually do away with the need for polluting fuels.
Every reader will undoubtedly find some articles that he/she thinks are too optimistic, too unrealistic, too uninteresting, or just wrong. However, most provide good food for thought and every third or fourth one provides a nice "aha!" The book covers such a wide range of topics, I have barely touched the surface in this review. Most anyone should find parts of it fascinating and I highly recommend it.
The book is actually a series of short essays, some only a paragraph in length, that bring together some of the thoughts on progress as conceived by various individuals successful in a wide range of intellectual endeavors, well known physicists, psychologists, medical researchers and so. While the reader will find that there is a degree of repetition--the same TOE and GUT on the Christmas list of two different physicists, for instance--there is still much that recommends the book in its very diversity of specialties. If you know something about theoretical physics, you may already know about the hopes of physicists for the future of their science, but most of us don't have a handle, even a tenuous one, on all of the scientific and technological fields out there. This book at least gives the reader a chance to find out something about what these bright people are doing and what they hope to achieve within the next century. It's more or less a sampler of what there is to know out there, and a marvellous guide to further topics for personal study.
My first expectation had been that the book would give the personal hopes of these very bright people for the world at large, so I was a little disappointed that the various essayists had not expressed pie in the sky hopes for world peace, etc. I'm not sure why I had this hope, since their opinion on the topic is probably no better or worse than my own. Too many variables enter into the equation. However, in their own field of professional experience, their opinions on the future do hold weight. It's not even that what they believe about the future will actually come to pass, so much as it is that it has a greater likelihood of doing so than what the average person might believe will happen in that particular field. I may think that physicists will or won't come up with a "theory of everything" or a "grand unified theory," but what do I know about it?! Each contributor to the book is very knowledgeable about his or her field. They have a better handle on what is accomplishable and are also making active contributions towards furthering their goals.
My favorite essays came from Robert Sapolsky (the author of one of my favorite books, Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers, Third Edition), Gloria Origgi (of whom I had not heard before this), Diane Halpern (whose name I recognize but not the context), and Geoffrey Carr (again an unknown to me):
Sapolsky was very realistic about human us/them interactions, suggesting that we are "hardwired" to make them. Though he feels it's possible we might circumvent these almost automatic and often prejudicial behaviors, he doesn't think it will happen anytime soon. I tend to agree.
Ms Origgi on the other hand seems to think that an increase in the number of multilingual individuals, especially those who come by it through bicultural parentage, will make the world a better place. Certainly this is possible, but somehow I think that these individuals tend to get marginalized and over extended by having a foot in two cultures. Maybe in the "ivory tower" world of science and technology these types of people "fit in," but they always have; it's a pretty rarified environment. To judge by the issues arising in Europe today among various cultural groups, the increase in numbers of the bicultural individual has not mitigated much. The multilingual kid is still swamped by the average kids in his environment.
Ms Halpern argues that the world is being reshaped by technology by making the activities of closed societies more open to inspection and subject to world opinion. I would agree with this. Nothing is more telling in this respect than the world wide outcry over the death of the young Iranian woman during the recent political protests in that country. While little was achieved or actually changed because of that specific event, I suspect that over time even very powerful nations will not be able to withstand the pressure of world opinion over unacceptable behavior for long. People are social animals and the opinions of others in their environment matter to them; classic research on group behavior reveals just how influencial and often how subtle it is. Certainly anyone who has lived in a small town for any length of time knows just how much impact the opinion of their neighbors has on behavior. As Ms Halpern suggests because of technology, the back fence has just gotten way bigger, and the gossip over it a whole lot more powerful.
Mr. Carr's observation that increased wellbeing of the human condition will bring down the rate of and even a reverse in population growth was very impressive. Stewart Brand had noted this also in his essay, but focused entirely on the welfare of women as they migrate to cities where increased opportunities provide them with better lives. The latter's note that an entire secondary economy arises as a result of the migration, while interesting, does not actually explain the effect on population. As both of these authors note, it seems counter intuitive that an improvement in standard of living would reverse the birthrate rather than raise it. The former author, however, more informatively suggests that it is caused by the same r- and K- selection factors that produce changes in birthrate in animals whose living conditions are either precarious or more predictable. That makes so much sense. What's particularly important is that it seems to operate through the female animal, indirectly determining the reproductive strategy in each environment. That is so logical and so possible I wonder it hasn't been suggested before now. Research on the behavior of animals subject to different mothering techniques also shows that Mom's wellbeing makes a difference.
Whatever one might say, what happens to women is important to what happens in the world. That so much of the world takes the welfare of women as so unimportant has never made sense to me. Even their relative worth vis à vis men in a society can have a major impact as came home to me after one of my visits to Egypt. In the 1980s Egypt was trying to reduce population growth--it had a population of about 40 million living in that little fertile stretch of the Nile and expected to see a doubling soon--but seemed unable to do anything about it. The legal system was based on the Koranic assumption that a woman's testimony in court was only worth ½ that of a man. Obviously if one had 11 children who were all female, and ones future well being before the law and that of the 11 girls was based on having at least one male child to represent you all before legal society, the likelihood that you would have another pregnancy to achieve that much treasured male child was nearly 100%. So the likelihood that the birthrate of Egypt would decline substantially was 0%. It has since doubled to 80 million. Go figure.
Some interesting information about "what's going on out there" over a wide spectrum of human social, scientific, and technological activity.