[EDITOR'S NOTE: Edge was founded in December 1996 as an email to about fifty people. Today, in 2006, Edge, which celebrates "the third culture," has more than five million individual user sessions. To celebrate our 10th anniversary we are pleased to present the 2007 Edge Annual Question, as well as "Nine Flowers," a new exhibition by Katinka Matson, Edge's resident artist and its co-founder. —JB]

The Edge Annual Question (2007)


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.

While conventional wisdom tells us that things are bad and getting worse, scientists and the science-minded among us can also see good news in the coming years.

The 160 responses to this year's Edge Question span topics such as string theory, intelligence, population growth, cancer, climate and much much more. Contributing their optimistic visions are a who's who of interesting and important world-class thinkers.

Got optimism? Welcome to the conversation!




The futures of optimists and pessimists
By Jim Holt

...You might think scientists would be the optimistic exception here. Science, after all, furnishes the model for progress, based as it is on the gradual and irreversible growth of knowledge. At the end of last year, Edge.org, an influential scientific salon, posed the questions "What are you optimistic about? Why?" to a wide range of thinkers. Some 160 responses have now been posted at the Web site. As you might expect, there is a certain amount of agenda-battling, and more than a whiff of optimism bias. A mathematician is optimistic that we will finally get mathematics education right, a psychiatrist is optimistic that we will find more effective drugs to block pessimism (although he is pessimistic that we will use the, wisely). But when the scientific thinkers look beyond their own specializations to the big picture, they continue to find cause for cheer - foreseeing an end to war, for example, or the simultaneous solution of our global warming and energy problems. The most general grounds for optimism offered by these thinkers, though, is that big-picture pessimism so often proves to be unfounded. The perennial belief that our best days are behind us is, it seems, perennially wrong.

Such reflections may or may not ease our tendency toward global pessimism. But what about our contrary tendency to be optimistic - indeed, excessively so - in our local outlook? Is that something we should, in the interests of cold reason, try to disabuse ourselves of? Optimism bias no doubt causes a good deal of mischief, leading us to underestimate the time and trouble of the projects we undertake. But the mere fact that it is so widespread in our species suggests it might have some adaptive value. perhaps if we calculated our odds in a more cleareyed way, we wouldn't be able to get out of bed in the morning.


February 19 , 2007
[subscription only]

By Juan Enríquez Cabot

Las tragedias individuales, dice Anderson, venden muchos más periódicos y atraen muchos más televidentes que las tendencias generales

A menudo, después de abrir el periódico, ver las noticias o vivir algún suceso especialmente triste, acaba uno con la idea de que el mundo era mucho mejor antes y que vamos rumbo a la decadencia, soledad, podredumbre y extrema violencia. En algunas partes y épocas efectivamente es así. Pero no lo es en general...Dos amigos míos me recordaron, en escritos de fin de año, que hay mucho que criticar, afrontar, cambiar, pero también hay mucho que celebrar. Chris Anderson escribió sobre el extremo sobrerreportaje que ocurre cuando hay un incidente terrorista, accidente masivo o desastre natural. Esto ocurre porque, en la mayoría del mundo, este tipo de muertes violentas no son lugar común. Hay grandes reportajes precisamente porque son sucesos excepcionales.Las tragedias individuales, dice Anderson, venden muchos más periódicos y atraen muchos más televidentes que las tendencias generales. "Perro ataca inocente infante" es mucho más poderoso que "la pobreza se redujo en un 1 por ciento". Pero aunque la segunda nota es mucho menos atractiva en términos mediáticos significa salvar y mejorar muchas más vidas.

Mucho se ha escrito sobre cómo la red, Google, Yahoo, Skype, You Tube eliminan distancias y reducen el costo de la comunicación, de lograr comunicación y obtener información global a casi cero. El resultado de estar siempre conectados a todas partes a todas horas es que las distancias se reducen y que individuales dramas mundiales entran, cada vez más, a nuestras casas a diario. Podemos enterarnos 24 x 7 sobre incendios, bombas, asaltos, torturas, desapariciones, violaciones y escándalos políticos en cualquiera de los casi 200 países del planeta. Una foto, un testimonial, un videoclip de 15 segundos, nos acercan a más y más dramas individuales. Cada historia nos convence, un poquito más, de que vivimos en mundo cruel, duro y violento...


February 10, 2007

Peering dangerously into a future of ageless codgers

AN IDEA may be dangerous either to its conceiver or to others, including its proponents. Four hundred years ago, heliocentricity was acutely dangerous to Galileo, whom it led before the Holy Inquisition. Two and a half centuries later, Darwin's notions on natural selection and the evolution of species jeopardised the certainties and imperilled the livelihoods of many professional Christians. To this day, the idea that God does not exist is dangerous enough to get atheists murdered in America.

The editor of this anthology of dangerous ideas, John Brockman, is, among other things, the publisher of Edge, the "Third Culture" website (www.edge.org). He has already published What We Believe but Cannot Prove, to which this volume is a companion. Each year, Brockman asks a question of his contributors. Last year's was: "What is your dangerous idea?" He meant not necessarily a new idea, or even one which they had originated, but one which is dangerous "not because it is assumed to be false but because it might be true". This volume, with an introduction by Steven Pinker and an afterword by Richard Dawkins, publishes the responses given in 2006 by 108 of "Today's Leading Thinkers on the Unthinkable".

...There is much in many of these brief essays to astonish, to be appalled at, to mull over or to wish for. Some of them suffer from galloping emailographism, that mannerism of the hasty respondent whose elliptical prose can make even the most pregnant idea indigestible. But most of them, from the three-sentence reminder by Nicholas Humphrey of Bertrand Russell's dangerous idea ("That it is undesirable to believe in a proposition when there is no ground whatever for supposing it true") to the five pages of V.S. Ramachandran on Francis Crick's "Astonishing Hypothesis" (that what we think of as our self is merely the activity of 100 billion bits of jelly, the neurons which constitute the brain), are vitally engaging to anyone with an ounce of interest in matters such as being or whatever

...Mind you, there is one glimpse of the future which rings grotesque enough to be plausible, Gerald Holton's "Projection of the Longevity Curve", in which we see a future matriarch, 200 years old, on her death bed, surrounded by her children aged about 180, her grandchildren of about 150, her great-grandchildren of about 120, their offspring aged in their 90s, and so on for several more generations. A touching picture, as the author says, "But what are the costs involved?"


2 février 2007

L'optimisme boursier actuel est inquiétant
Bernard Mooney, Journal Les Affaires

Le marché boursier se distingue à bien des égards. Ainsi, dans la vie de tous les jours, l'enthousiasme, l'optimisme et la confiance sont des valeurs importantes. Mais à la Bourse, ces belles qualités peuvent devenir des pièges coûteux.

Le paradoxe, c'est que notre monde en général est en manque d'optimisme, alors même qu'il y en a probablement trop dans les marchés financiers.

Le site Web Edge.org offre un lieu d'échange à un grand nombre de scientifiques, philosophes, penseurs et intellectuels de tous genres. Le consulter est fascinant. La quantité et la qualité des interventions qu'on y trouve sont vraiment exceptionnelles.

Au début de chaque année, John Brockman, éditeur d'Edge.org, pose une question fondamentale à ses participants. En 2006, la question était "Quelle est votre idée dangereuse?"

Cette année, sa question est "À propos de quoi êtes-vous optimiste?" Et des personnalités comme le psychologue Steven Pinker, le philosophe Daniel Dennett, le biologiste Richard Dawkins, le psychologue Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, le biologiste et géographe Jared Diamond, le physicien Freeman Dyson, le psychologue Daniel Goleman et des dizaines d'autres y ont répondu.


January 21, 2007
Arts & Entertainment

J. PEDER ZANE, Staff Writer

'What are you optimistic about?" editor John Brockman asked some of the world's leading scientists on his Web site, www.edge.org.

As I've yet to complete my unified theory of the universe, he did not include me in his survey. If he had, I'd have answered: Just about everything.

As I reported in last week's column, Brockman's respondents were forward-looking, describing cutting-edge research that will help combat global warming and other looming problems. My optimism is anchored in the past.

By almost any measure -- greater wealth, better health, diminishing levels of violence -- the world is good and getting better. My only regret is that I am alive today because tomorrow will be even brighter.

Where to start with the good news? How about with the Big Kahuna: During the 20th century, life spans for the average American rose from 44 years to 77 as we tamed age-old scourges such as smallpox, malaria, polio and plague.


January 20, 2007

How Doomed Are We?

Edgie's Chris Anderson of TED and Robert Provine of University of Maryland as the proponents of optimism on program concerning Optimism and the Doomsday Clock

January 20, 2007

Tuned In
By Steven Poole

What Is Your Dangerous Idea?, edited by John Brockman (Simon & Schuster, £12.99)

The results of the 2005 Question at edge.org, posed by Steven Pinker, are in. Apart from an exasperating section about "memes" (are they still fashionable?) and a few Eeyorish dullards, it's a titillating compilation. Physicist Freeman Dyson predicts that home biotech kits will become common; others posit that democracy may be a blip and "on its way out", that "heroism" is just as banal as evil, and that it will be proven that free will does not exist. There are also far-out but thought-provoking notions: that, given the decadent temptations of virtual reality, the only civilisations of any species that survive to colonise the galaxy will be puritan fundamentalists; or that the internet may already be aware of itself. I particularly enjoyed cognitive scientist Donald D Hoffman's gnomic pronouncement that "a spoon is like a headache", and mathematician Rudy Rucker's robust defence of panpsychism, the idea that "every object has a mind. Stars, hills, chairs, rocks, scraps of paper, flakes of skin, molecules". Careful what you do with this newspaper after you've read it.


January 14, 2006
Arts & Entertainment

Scientists see dazzling future
J. Peder Zane, Staff Writer

Peering into their crystal telescopes, the world's leading scientists see a magnificent future:

* "The use of proteins and other markers [will] permit the early detection and identification of cancer, hugely increasing the prospects of survival."

* "Young adults alive today will, on average, live to 120."

* "Eternal life may come within our reach once we understand enough about how our knowledge and mental processes work ... to duplicate that information -- and then [transfer it] into more robust machines."

* "Someone who is already alive will be the first person to make their permanent home off-Earth."

* "Within a generation ... we will be able to make self-replicating machines that ... absorb energy through solar cells, eat rock and use the energy and minerals to make copies of itself ... [as well as] toasters, refrigerators, and Lamborghinis."

Those are just five of the gee-whiz prognostications offered in response to the 10th Annual Edge Question, posed by John Brockman, editor of the science web site www.edge.org. This year, Richard Dawkins, Steven Pinker, Jared Diamond, Freeman Dyson and J. Craig Venter were among the 160 luminaries who in short, clear essays, tackled the question "What are you optimistic about?"

Forcing respondents to set aside the doom-and-gloom mindset that passes for sophistication, Brockman elicited answers that remind us that we are living in a Golden Age of discovery. The biologists, physicists and computer scientists he queried believe that the 20th-century breakthroughs that have enabled us to live longer, healthier and more comfortable lives may be dwarfed by the accomplishments on the near horizon. ...

The overriding hope among Edge respondents is that our increased capacity to gather and analyze information will spark the rise of an "evidence-based" world. We see this already in the field of criminal justice, where people convicted on faulty "eyewitness" testimony have been freed thanks to DNA. In the future, respondents argue, the instincts and perceptions that inform so much of our political, legal and cultural decision-making will be replaced by hard facts.

"We will learn more about the human condition in the next two decades than we did in the last two millennia, and we will then begin to apply what we learn, everywhere," writes Clay Shirky of NYU's Graduate School of Interactive Telecommunications Program. "Evidence-based treaties. Evidence-based teaching. Evidence-based industrial design. Evidence-based parenting."

These are exciting times. Next week I'll write about why I'm optimistic, and I'd love to hear from you. Please phone or e-mail and let me know: What are you optimistic about?


January 10, 2007

Andar y Ver / Optimismo de la inteligencia
Jesús Silva-Herzog Márquez

El foro virtual Edge propone buscar razones, no simplemente deseos, para el optimismo. Edge es un club que reúne, segén ellos mismos, algunas de las mentes más interesantes del mundo. Su propósito es estimular discusiones en las fronteras del conocimiento. La intención es llegar al borde del conocimiento mundial, acercándose a las mentes más complejas y refinadas, juntarlas en un foro y hacerlos que se pregunten las preguntas que ellos mismos se hacen. La fundación actúa, de este modo, como surtidora de problemas y alojamiento de réplicas. Cada ano se constituye como Centro Mundial de Preguntas.


January 8, 2007


Most Hated Digg Comment Proves (Part of) Jaron Lanier's Point about the Cracked Wisdom of Crowds

The affair called to mind a certain meme that I had mentally buried (in the Digg user's sense) but am now forced to revisit with a more open mind. In the November Discover, tech ponderer Jaron Lanier expressed his dismay over the increasing prevalence of "wisdom of crowds" approaches to aggregating information online. See especially Wikipedia and Digg as instances of this phenomenon, also called Web 2.0. Lanier must consider that term itself a masterpiece of framing; he sees a growing glorification of online wisdom-aggregation, and has dubbed the trend Digital Maoism. ...

Anyway, this sort of asymmetrical flamewar doesn't seem to be Lanier's main objection to Digital Maoism. A while back at the Edge.org, on which big brains convene to butt heads, Lanier's argument was abbreviated thusly:

The problem is [not Wikipedia itself but] in the way the Wikipedia has come to be regarded and used; how it's been elevated to such importance so quickly. And that is part of the larger pattern of the appeal of a new online collectivism that is nothing less than a resurgence of the idea that the collective is all-wise, that it is desirable to have influence concentrated in a bottleneck that can channel the collective with the most verity and force. This is different from representative democracy, or meritocracy.  


podcast blog

Science Weekly for January 8
By James Randerson / Science

Welcome in the New Year with the Guardian's science team as they ask what we can be optimistic about in 2007. Thinkers such as the Darwinian philosopher Dan Dennett and psychologist Steven Pinker are looking forward respectively to the end of religion and war in 2007—or at least, the beginning of the end. Hear more predictions from web guru and editor of Edge magazine John Brockman.

January 7, 2007

Call me a cockeyed optimist
God bless those upbeat scientists

Alun Anderson; David Bodanis; Rodney A. Brooks; Adam Bly; Jared Diamond; Esther Dyson; George Dyson; Helen Fisher; Haim Harari; Steven Pinker

OPTIMISM IS almost a dirty word these days. Global warming, the situation in Iraq, poverty, AIDS and other seemingly unsolvable problems can make us feel a bit blue. To our rescue comes John Brockman, from the Edge World Question Center. This year's poser: What are you optimistic about? "While conventional wisdom tells us that things are bad and getting worse, scientists and the science-minded among us see good news in the coming years." This is the 10th anniversary of the Annual Question; 160 thinkers weighed in.  


January 7, 2007
Opinion: OpEd

Looking through rose-colored microscopes
Why some scientists are optimistic about the future

Richard Dawkins; Max Tegmark; Jonathan Haidt; James O'Donnell; Steven Pinker; Jean Pigozzi; Jared Diamond; J. Craig Venter; Roger Highfield

EVERY YEAR SINCE 1996, the online salon Edge has e-mailed a question to scientists and thinkers about the state of the world. This year's question was: "What are you optimistic about?" Below are excerpts of some of the responses. For full responses (and those of other contributors), go to http://www.edge.org.


Sun, Jan. 07, 2007

Postcards hint of a brighter tomorrow
Walt Mills

...Into my season of gloom, a ray of hope arrived the other day via the Internet, benefit of the Web site called Edge.

As I understand it, Edge is an electronic gathering place for scientists, artists and other creative thinkers. Most of them are out traveling on the far reaches of the high-tech superhighway, sending us their postcards from a few years in the future. ...

Chris Anderson, who is the curator for an intellectual gathering called the TED Conference, makes a similar point. He says that the number of armed conflicts has declined worldwide by 40 percent in the past decade.

If the world seems ever more threatening, it is because we are wired to respond more strongly to threats than we are to good news. Besides, good news such as scientific discovery and economic progress is largely under-reported in the media, while disaster and doom are hugely over-reported.

I was cheered by the optimism of a science writer who thinks that we will soon have a technological breakthrough that will make solar energy dirt cheap long before the big energy crunch arrives. He's not sure which of the many bright ideas he has written about will be the one that works, but he has faith in the scientists who are pushing at the boundaries of the technology. ...

The Edge contributors fanned the flame of optimism in me in the season of darkness.

06 January 2007, page 3

Editorial: Reasons to be cheerful

THE new year is a time for reflection and re-evaluation. It is a process that can leave one feeling up and optimistic or distinctly depressed. If you need some reasons to be cheerful, read on.

The impact of science and technology has been overwhelmingly positive. In a few hundred years life has been transformed from short and brutish to long and civilised. Improvements are spreading (admittedly too slowly) around the planet. Of course, some discoveries and inventions have led to serious problems, but science and technology often provide ways to monitor and alleviate those problems, from ozone destruction to overproduction of greenhouse gases.

And further benefits are coming. To take one example from this issue, researchers have made a drug to treat hepatitis C that should be affordable even in poor countries . Then there is the extent to which cellphones are improving life for the world's poor, the numerous ideas for harnessing energy from sunlight, that human intelligence can be increased and that a revolution in personal genomics is in the wings. These ideas come from www.edge.org, which asked 160 scientists and intellectuals what they are optimistic about. One way or another the answers should give you a warm glow - either because you agree, or because they make you angry.

If you are still left thinking your glass is half empty, check out the submission by Randolph M. Nesse of the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. He predicts that we will find a way to block pessimism. The consequences may not be all good, but it's a safe bet that science and technology will come to the rescue.

Friday, January 05, 2007

Grandiose notions of great scientists

The assigned purpose of the influential Web magazine, Edge, is lofty enough. It’s to seek out the most complex and sophisticated minds, put them in a room together, and have them ask each other the questions they are asking themselves.

Recently, Edge asked a group of world class scientists and thinkers its 10th Anniversary Question: “What are you optimistic about and why? Among the respondents were leading American philosopher Daniel C Dennett and evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins.