What are you optimistic about?
Global warming, the war on terror and rampant consumerism getting you down? Well, lighten up: here, 17 of the world's smartest scientists and academics share their reasons to be cheerful
Sunday 21 January 2007
Evolutionary biologist; Charles Simonyi Professor for the Understanding of Science, Oxford University; author, 'The God Delusion'
The final scientific enlightenment
I am optimistic that the physicists of our species will complete Einstein's dream and discover the final theory of everything before superior creatures, evolved on another world, make contact and tell us the answer. I am optimistic that, although the theory of everything will bring fundamental physics to a convincing closure, the enterprise of physics itself will continue to flourish, just as biology went on growing after Darwin solved its deep problem. I am optimistic that the two theories together will furnish a totally satisfying naturalistic explanation for the existence of the universe and everything that's in it, including ourselves. And I am optimistic that this final scientific enlightenment will deal an overdue death blow to religion and other juvenile superstitions.
Rodney A Brooks
Director, MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL); chief technical officer of iRobot Corporation; author, 'Flesh and Machines'
The 22nd century
I am optimistic about many things, especially the future. Just last week I met a number of people from the 22nd century, and they were delightful. We smiled and giggled together a lot but none of them seemed to speak a word of English. Even their Japanese was not so great just yet. But demographic analysis tell us that many of those little girls I saw in Kyoto will end up as citizens of the next century.
I am optimistic that even if none of the people I just met do so, then at least someone who is already alive will be the first person to make their permanent home off Earth. And next century my new young acquaintances will go to sleep at night on this planet knowing that humankind has spread itself out into the solar system. Some people will have done it for wealth. Others, driven by our evolutionarily selected urges, will have done it to once again mediate risks across our gene pool by spreading out into different environmental niches. But the wonder of it all is that those now old, but sprightly, women in Kyoto will be able to revel in the romance of the human spirit, always questing to learn, understand, explore, and be.
Artist; composer; producer (U2, Talking Heads, Paul Simon); recording artist
Things change for the better either because something went wrong or because something went right. Recently, we've seen an example of the former, and this failure fills me with optimism.
The acceptance of the reality of global warming has, in the words of Sir Nicholas Stern in his report on climate change to the British government, shown us "the greatest and widest ranging market failure ever seen". The currency of conservatism for the past century has been that markets are smarter than governments: and this creed has reinforced the conservative resistance to anything resembling binding international agreements. The suggestion that global warming represents a failure of the market is therefore important. Technical solutions will hopefully be found, but the process will need to be primed and stoked and enforced by legislation that would be regarded as big-government socialism in the present climate. The future may be a bit more like Sweden and a bit less like America.
If a single first instance of global governance proves successful, it will strengthen its appeal as a way of addressing other problems - such as weapons control, energy management, money-laundering, conflict resolution, people-trafficking, slavery and poverty. It will become increasingly difficult for countries to stay outside of future treaties such as Kyoto - partly because of international pressure but increasingly because of pressure from their own populations.
Psychologist, Harvard University; author, 'The Blank Slate'
The decline of violence
In 16th-century Paris, a popular form of entertainment was cat-burning, in which a cat was hoisted on a stage and slowly lowered into a fire. According to the historian Norman Davies, "the spectators, including kings and queens, shrieked with laughter as the animals, howling with pain, were singed, roasted, and finally carbonised". As horrific as present-day events are, such sadism would be unthinkable today in most of the world. This is just one example of the most important and under-appreciated trend in the history of our species: the decline of violence. Cruelty as popular entertainment, human sacrifice to indulge superstition, slavery as a labour-saving device, genocide for convenience, torture and mutilation as routine forms of punishment, execution for trivial crimes and misdemeanors, assassination as a means of political succession, pogroms as an outlet for frustration, and homicide as the major means of conflict resolution - all were unexceptionable features of life for most of human history. Yet today they are statistically rare in the West, less common elsewhere than they used to be, and widely condemned when they do occur.
Most people, sickened by the headlines and the bloody history of the 20th century, find this claim incredible. Yet as far as I know, every systematic attempt to document the prevalence of violence over centuries and millennia (and, for that matter, the past 50 years), particularly in the West, has shown that the overall trend is downward (though of course with many zigzags). What went right? No one knows, possibly because we have been asking the wrong question - "Why is there war?" instead of "Why is there peace?"
There have been some suggestions, all unproven. Perhaps the gradual perfecting of a democratic Leviathan - "a common power to keep [men] in awe" - has removed the incentive to do it to them before they do it to us. James Payne, author of The History of Force, suggests that it's because, for many people, life has become longer and less awful - when pain, tragedy and early death are expected (omega) features of one's own life, one feels fewer compunctions about inflicting them on others. The award-winning science writer Robert Wright points to technologies that enhance networks of reciprocity and trade, which make other people more valuable alive than dead. The Australian philosopher Peter Singer attributes it to the inexorable logic of the golden rule: the more one knows and thinks, the harder it is to privilege one's own interests over those of other sentient beings. Perhaps this is amplified by cosmopolitanism, in which history, journalism, memoir and realistic fiction make the inner lives of other people, and the contingent nature of one's own station, more palpable - the feeling that "there but for fortune go I..."
I am optimistic about humanity's coming enlightenment.
In particular, I am optimistic about humanity's prospects for starting exemplary new collaboratively developed knowledge resources. When we hit upon the correct models for collaborative knowledge-collection online, there will be a jaw-dropping, unprecedented, paradigm-shifting explosion in the availability of high-quality free knowledge.
Lord (Martin) Rees
President, 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'
The energy challenge
A few years ago, I wrote a short book entitled 'Our Final Century'. I guessed that, taking all risks into account, there was only a 50 per cent 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.
There 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. Twenty-first 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 poverty.
Later 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.
My number-one priority would be much-expanded research and development 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 three trillion dollars per year on energy and its infrastructure. This effort can engage not just those in privileged technical environments 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 and efficiency. This goal deserves a priority and commitment from governments akin to that accorded to the Manhattan project or the Apollo moon landing.
Futurist; business strategist; co-founder, Global Business Network, a Monitor Company; author, 'The Long Boom'
I turned 60 this year and several decades ago I would have looked forward to a steady decline in all my physical and mental capabilities, leading into a long and messy death. The accelerating pace of biological and medical advances that are unfolding in front of us are heavily focused on reducing the infirmities of ageing and curing or transforming the diseases of old age from fatal to chronic. It means that 90 really will be the new 60 and there is a good chance that I will be among the vigorous new centenarians of mid century, with most of my faculties working fairly well.
Vision, hearing, memory, cognition, bone and muscle strength, skin tone, hair and, of course, sexual vigour will all be remediable in the near future. Alzheimer's may be curable and most cancers are likely to be treatable if not curable. And regenerative medicine may truly lead to real increase in youthfulness as new custom-grown organs replace old, less-functional ones. And, within a few decades, we are likely to be able to slow ageing itself, which could even lead to life beyond 120.
Judith Rich Harris
Independent investigator and theoretician; author, 'No Two Alike: Human Nature and Human Individuality'
I am optimistic about human relationships - in particular, about friendship. Perhaps you have heard gloomy predictions about friendship: it's dying out, people no longer have friends they can confide in, loneliness is on the rise.
But friendship isn't dying out: it's just changing, adapting to the changes in the world. People are discovering different ways of getting together. It may be harder to find a bowling partner but it's easier to find someone to chat with, because there are more ways to chat.
When I was a child, people with chronic illnesses were described as "shut-ins". Now, a person can be shut in without being shut out. I have friends whom I know only through email conversations but who are as dear to me as my college roommate and dearer by far than my next-door neighbour.
W Daniel Hillis
Physicist; computer scientist; chairman, Applied Minds, Inc; author, 'The Pattern on the Stone'
I am optimistic about humankind's ability to reach a sustainable balance with other life on Earth, in part because the number of humans on Earth will soon start to decrease. This doesn't mean that I think we should ignore our environmental problem - just the (omega) opposite: I think we should fight hard now with the confidence that we can win a complete and lasting victory.
We are so accustomed to watching the explosion of human growth and development that it is easy to imagine that this is normal. It is not. We are the first generation in history that has watched the human population double in our own lifetime, and no future generation is likely to see it again. All of those blights of growth that we have come to accept - crowded cites, jammed roads, expanding suburbs, fish-depleted oceans and tree-stripped forests - are all symptoms of a one-of-a-kind surge in human expansion. Soon, they will be just memories.
There are currently over six billion people in the world. There will probably never be more than 10 billion. Population forecasts vary, but they all agree that human population growth is slowing. As people become more prosperous, they have smaller families. In every country where women are allowed free access to education and healthcare, rates of population growth are going down. Sometimes the trends are hidden by the delays of demographics, but the real population growth rates are already negative in Europe, China and, if we subtract immigration, the US. The total human population is still growing, but not as fast as it once was. Assuming that these trends continue, the total population of the world will be shrinking well before the end of this century.
There is no doubt that the environmental challenges of the next decades are daunting, and they will require all the power of human striving and creativity to overcome them. Yet I have no doubt that we will succeed. Innovation, good will and determined effort will be enough to handle the next few billion people. Then, as populations shrink, demands on resources will be reduced. Nature will begin to repair itself, reclaiming what we have so hastily taken. I hope we manage to keep the gorillas, elephants and rhinoceroses alive. By the end of the century, they will have room to roam.
Archaeologist, University of Bradford; author, 'The Buried Soul'
In a small wire tidy on my desk I have several corks. But they are not cork. In the 1980s, demand for high-quality cork began to outstrip supply. As low-grade cork often taints (or "corks") wine, substitutes were sought. My corks are synthetic. One is cork-coloured and slightly variegated to make it appear traditional; like real corks in the German Riesling tradition, it is stamped in black with a vine tendril motif. Another is less convincingly mottled, and is mid-yellow in colour with the name of the vintner, Gianni Vescovo, printed in bold black. Both these corks are skeuomorphs - objects that preserve formal vestiges of the constraints of an original no longer strictly necessary in the new material. First-generation skeuomorphs are close mimics, even fakes.
Second-generation skeuomorphs, such as the Vescovo cork, abandon any serious attempt at deception. Its mottling, and the fact that it is still a functional cork, rather than a metal screwtop closure, is a comforting nod to the history of wine. At the same time it signals a new, more consistent, freedom from contamination. As synthetic corks became more familiar, new and more baroque forms arose. These third-generation skeuomorphs are fun: a bright-purple cork that stoppered an Australian red suggests a grape colour, while a black cork has a hi-tech look that draws symbolic attention to the new techniques of low-temperature fermentation in stainless-steel.
I see much of the history of technology as an unplanned trajectory in which emergent skeuomorphic qualities often turn out to have been critical. Corks are a relatively trivial example in an extraordinary history of skeuomorphism, impossible to review here, but which encompasses critical turns in material development from prehistoric flint, via the discovery of metals and alloys, to complex compound objects, of which computers are a modern manifestation.
I grew up with Alan Turing's unsettling vision of a future machine indistinguishable from a human in its reactions. Ray Kurzweil's provocative prediction of the impending "singularity" - the point when computer intelligence would start to leave humans gasping in its intellectual wake - added to my fears.
I have recently become quite relaxed about all this. Computers' eventual power will probably not be in simulation or deception. Instead, by surpassing us in some areas, they will relieve our brains and bodies of repetitive effort. If they behave as other skeuomorphs before them, it will be computers' currently unimagined emergent qualities that we will come to value most, enhancing and complementing our humanity rather than competing with and superseding it.
Writer; futurist; author, 'Passionate Minds'
I'm optimistic because there's a core decency in people that even the worst machinations of governments can't entirely hold down. The Evelina Hospital [in Southwark, London] is the first new children's hospital that's been built in the city in a century. There's a giant atrium in the middle, and the contract with the company doing the cleaning says that the window cleaners need to dress up as superheroes. The children in bed - many with grave illnesses - delight in seeing Superman and Spiderman dangling just inches away from them, on the outside of the glass; apparently for the cleaners it's one of the highlights of their week. The government has wasted a fortune on consultants, bureaucracy and reorganisations of the NHS. It's always defended in cold management-speak. This simple arrangement with the window cleaners cuts through all that. Everyone I've mentioned it to recognises that - and in that recognition, lies our hope.
Philosopher and researcher, Centre Nationale de la Recherche Scientifique; author, 'Text-E: Text in the Age of the Internet'
I'm optimistic about Europe. On 30 May 2005, the day after the French rejected in a referendum the project of the European Constitution, I was travelling on the Thalys high-speed train from Paris to Brussels for a committee meeting at the European Community. The train was full people of my age - in their thirties - going to Brussels as "experts" in various domains to attend meetings and participate in various EC projects. I looked around and started chatting with my neighbours. The conversation was light, mainly about restaurants and bars in Brussels or new exhibitions and movies. Most of the people I spoke with came from more than one cultural background, with two or more nationalities in the family: say, father from Germany, mother from Ireland, grown up in Rotterdam. All of us were at least bilingual, many trilingual or more.
I quickly realised that asking the opening question of ordinary train encounters, "Where are you from?", had become patently obsolete. The image was quite at odds with the newspapers' and politicians' cliché of the prototypical EC officer as a grey, square, hideously boring civil servant in a checkered jacket, wasting time inventing useless bureaucratic rules. My neighbours epitomised (omega) the deep cultural change that is now taking place in Europe. A new generation has grown up - people born more than a quarter of a century after the end of the Second World War and now moving around Europe to study, work, meet, date, marry and have children with people from other European countries, and do so as a matter of course.
President & CEO, Aspen Institute; former CEO, CNN; former managing editor, 'Time'; author, 'Benjamin Franklin: An American Life'
Print as a technology
I am very optimistic about print as a technology. Words on paper are a wonderful information storage, retrieval, distribution and consumer product. Imagine if we had been getting our information delivered digitally to our screens for the past 400 years. Then some modern Gutenberg had come up with a technology that was able to transfer these words and pictures on to pages that could be delivered to our doorstep, and we could take them to the backyard, the bath, or the bus. We would be thrilled with this technological leap forward, and we would predict that someday it might replace the internet.
Psychologist, Autism Research Centre, Cambridge University; author, 'The Essential Difference'
The rise of autism
Whichever country I travel to, attending conferences on the subject of autism, I hear the same story: autism is on the increase. Thus, in 1978, the rate of autism was four in 10,000 children, but today (according to a Lancet article in 2006) it is 1 per cent. No one quite knows what this increase is due to, though conservatively it is put down to better recognition, better services, and broadening the diagnostic category to include milder cases such as Asperger's syndrome.
It is neither proven nor disproven that the increase might reflect other factors, such as genetic change or some environmental (eg, hormonal) change. And for scientists to answer the question of what is driving this increase will require imaginative research comparing historical as well as cross-cultural data. Some may throw up their hands at this increase in autism and feel despair and pessimism. They may feel that the future is bleak for all of these newly diagnosed cases of autism. But I remain optimistic that, for a good proportion of them, it has never been a better time to have autism.
Why? Because there is a remarkably good fit between the autistic mind and the digital age. Computers operate on the basis of extreme precision, and so does the autistic mind. Computers are systems, and the autistic mind is the ultimate systemiser. The inherently ambiguous and unpredictable world of people and emotions is a turn-off for someone with autism, but a rapid series of clicks of the mouse that leads to the same result every time that sequence is performed is reassuringly attractive. Many children with autism develop an intuitive understanding of computers in the same way that other children develop an intuitive understanding of people.
So, why am I optimistic? For this new generation of children with autism, I anticipate that many of them will find ways to blossom, using their skills with digital technology to find employment, to find friends, and in some cases to innovate.
Science historian; author, 'Darwin Among the Machines'
The return of commercial sail
I am optimistic about the return of commercial sail. Hybrid sail/electric vessels will proliferate by harvesting energy from the wind. Sailing ships turn wind energy directly into long-distance transport, but the practice was abandoned in an era of cheap fuel. The prospects deserve a second look. It is possible to not only conserve, but even accumulate fuel reserves by sailing around the world. Modern sailing-vessel design, so far, has been constrained by two imperatives: racing and ability to sail upwind. Under favourable conditions, sails produce far more horsepower than is needed to drive a ship. At marginal sacrifice in speed, by running the auxiliary propulsion system in reverse, this energy can be stored. Hybrid vessels, able to store large amounts of energy would be free to roam the world. The trade winds constitute an enormous engine waiting to be put to use. When oil becomes expensive enough, we will.
Quantum physicist, Oxford University; author, 'The Fabric of Reality'
Whether solutions are possible
They always are. Why is that important? Firstly, because it is true. There is no anthropocentric spite built into the laws of physics, mandating that human improvement may proceed this far and no further. Nor is the dark, neo-religious fantasy true that Nature abhors human hubris, and always exacts a hidden price that outweighs any apparent success, so that "progress" always has to be in scare quotes. And secondly, because how we explain failure, both prospectively and retrospectively, is itself a major determinant of success. If we are optimistic that failure to improve ourselves means merely that we haven't found the solution yet, then success is never due to divine grace (nowadays known as "natural resources") but always to human effort and creativity, and failure is opportunity.
Science writer; founding chairman of the International Centre for Life; author, 'Francis Crick: Discoverer of the Genetic Code'
The historian Macaulay said, in 1830: "We cannot absolutely prove that those are in error who tell us that society has reached a turning point, that we have seen our best days. But so said all who came before us and with just as much apparent reason." The enduring pessimism of human beings about the future does real harm by persuading people, especially the young, to retreat from adventure and enterprise into anomie. Sure, the world has problems: Aids, Islamofascism, carbon dioxide. But I bet we can solve them as we have solved others - such as smallpox, the population explosion and the high price of whale oil. s
The full-length versions of these pieces (and many more) can be found at www.edge.org, a website founded by John Brockman.'What Is Your Dangerous Idea?', by John Brockman (Editor), is published by Simon & Schuster, £12.99; 'What We Believe But Cannot Prove', by John Brockman (Editor), is published by Pocket Books, £7.99
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