Dangerous Minds [1]

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[ Sat. Jun. 30. 2007 ]

One of these claims is sure to make your blood boil: the assertion that humans have no soul. Or that we are alone in the universe. Or that the search for the origin of life is pointless.

In What Is Your Dangerous Idea? Today's Leading Thinkers on the Unthinkable (Harper Perennial, $13.95), John Brockman, founder of Edge (www.edge.org [3]), an online salon, asks 108 thinkers and scientists to describe their "most dangerous idea." Harvard University cognitive scientist Steven Pinker sets the tone in the introduction: "Science in particular has always been a source of heresy, and today the galloping advances in touchy areas like genetics, evolution, and the environmental sciences are bound to throw unsettling possibilities at us," he writes.

Essentially a compendium of short essays, the book reads like an intriguing dinner party conversation among great minds in science—some of whom, of course, talk right past each other. String theory king Brian Greene contends that our universe is just one of many. On the next page, quantum theory proponent Carlo Rovelli shoots down the multiverse as "audacious scientific speculation."

Bold ideas aren't limited to the hard sciences; there's something here to provoke everyone, including the suggestion that evil emerges in all of us. Geneticist-provocateur J. Craig Venter proposes that we are not all created equal; the unorthodox psychology writer Judith Rich Harris undermines parenting by claiming that parents don't have much influence over the ultimate character of their children.

Don't expect to find answers here. Brockman will have you asking more questions than when you started—and may even change your mind about the ideas you've always been convinced are right. After reading What Is Your Dangerous Idea? even know-it-alls will realize how little they know for sure.