IN BRIEF: What Are You Optimistic About?

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[ Mon. Dec. 31. 2007 ]

To non-scientists, it may not be obvious that science tends to be an optimistic endeavour.  While academics working in the arts or humanities may be more equivocal abut the state of the world, those working in science tend to be hopeful, at least about furthering the limits of human knowledge and the possibilities of what can be known in the future.  These are essentially optimistic goals.

What Are You Optimistic About? is a collection of essays from "the world’s leading scientists and thinkers" addressing the 2007 annual question posed by John Brockman on his website  Like its predecessors from previous years, it covers an impressively wide range of topics, including the futures of religion, the origins of the universe, climate change, neuroscience, human relationships, medicine, artificial intelligence, communications and psychology, among others.  Inevitably, many important ideas get brief, superficial discussion, but as a whole the collection provides an overview of where the work in a number of interesting fields is heading, and makes both engaging and consoling predictions about the future.  As Brockman is careful to articulate in his introduction, not all of these things will come to pass, but some certainly will.

Almost all the contributions are written by scientists or at least "thinkers in the empirical world": people Brockman considers to be the new intellectuals of modern culture.  Steven Pinker explains why the decline in violence in the world will continue; Dan Sperber considers altruism on the web; and Oliver Morton writes on how solar energy can save the planet.  A number of these essays assert confidently that we are living in a time of shifting paradigms, but they rarely agree on precise terms, and some hopes for the future openly contradict others.  The most memorable moments in the collection do not come from ambitious contributions on the showstopper science of torpedoed religion, cancer cures and climate reversals.  Instead they come when the contributors address wider hopes for human ingenuity, our capacity for progress and problem-solving.  The edge question for 2008 is: what have you changed your mind about?  This will surely provoke another stimulating array of responses, profiling issues and ideas where recent data are challenging preconceptions and highlighting the topics on the brink of breakthrough and development