Max Brockman, ed. | What's Next? Dispatches on the Future of Science (Vintage)

[ Tue. Jun. 30. 2009 ]

Written by Sarah Boslaugh 

Each essay is self-contained, making it possible to choose those most relevant to your own interest


If your favorite day of the week is Tuesday, because that's when the Science section of The New York Times is published, and your favorite NPR show is Ira Flatow'sScience Times, then you'll love What's Next? Dispatches on the Future of Science, a collection of essays written by young scientists about what they do and how they see the future of their fields. Even if you're not quite that much of a science geek, if you have an interest in the world around you and the process by which scientific research can both explain and mold that world, you'll enjoy this collection edited by Max Brockman. No expertise in any field is required to understand these essays; if you can follow Malcolm Gladwell, you'll have no troubles with What's Next?

Brockman's essayists represent a variety of fields, from physics to paleoanthropology, with a heavy leaning toward the human sciences. This is a good choice from the marketing point of view, since non-scientists tend to be more interested in topics relating to human psychology than, say, the role played by dark energy in accelerating the expansion of the universe, but fans of hard science may feel slighted. That objection aside, this is the perfect collection for people who like to stay up on recent scientific research but haven't the time or expertise to go to the original sources (which, in the case of modern science, usually means articles published in professional journals, which are not generally available to those without access to an academic library).

Each essay is self-contained, making it possible to choose those most relevant to your own interests. And it's a great airplane or beach book because you can read the essays in any order; each is brief enough to be read between the interruptions of gate announcements or children demanding attention. My personal favorite is "What Makes Big Ideas Sticky?" by UCLA psychologist Matthew Lieberman, which argues that ideas which mirror the structure and function of the human brain may seem so obviously true to us that they resist being discarded, even in the face of overwhelming amounts of scientific research demonstrating their lack of merit.

The collection closes with an essay by NASA climatologist Gavin Schmidtentitled "Why hasn't specialization led to the Balkanization of science?" He argues that in contradiction to the stereotype of the scientist as someone who knows more and more about less and less, interdisciplinary research is central to modern science and describes both the factors which lead to greater isolation among fields of research, and those which encourage cooperation and sharing of ideas. Communication of major ideas in nontechnical language is one of the factors which encourages cooperation, and What's Next? represents an important contribution to that effort.

Sarah Boslaugh

256 pages. $14.95 (paperback)