Why 160 Scientists Are Optimistic in 2007

Not too long ago, we mentioned the Edge.org, the web site run by John Brockman, the literary agent of some very important scientific minds. Now it's worth mentioning it again. With the start of the new year, the web site asked 160 influential thinkers "what are you optimistic about?" And, as you'd expect from some pretty smart people, you get some pretty intriguing responses. Below, we've included five examples, but you can and should access the full list of replies here:

Richard Dawkins - 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 deathblow to religion and other juvenile superstitions."

Matt Ridley - The Future

"The future. That's what I'm optimistic about. 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 eternal, 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."

Jared Diamond - Good Choices Sometimes Prevail
"I am cautiously optimistic about the state of the world, because: 1. Big businesses sometimes conclude that what is good for the long-term future of humanity is also good for their bottom line (cf. Wal-Mart's recent decision to shift their seafood purchases entirely to certified sustainable fisheries within the next three to five years). 2. Voters in democracy sometimes make good choices and avoid bad choices (cf. some recent elections in a major First World country)."

Leonard Susskind - Going Beyond Our Darwinian Roots
I am optimistic about the adaptability of the human brain to answer questions that evolution could not have designed it for. A brain that can rewire itself to visualize 4 dimensions, or the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, is clearly going way beyond the things that natural selection could have wired it for. It makes me optimistic that we may be able to go beyond our Darwinian roots in other ways.

Stewart Brand - Cities — Global Population Shrinkage And Economic Growth
"...Cities have always been wealth creators. Cities have always been population sinks. This year, 2007, is the crossover point from a world predominantly rural to a world predominantly urban.

The rate of urbanization is currently about 1.3 million new city dwellers a week, 70 million a year, still apparently accelerating. The world was 3% urban in 1800, 14% urban in 1900, 50% urban this year, and probably headed in the next few decades to around 80% urban, which has been the stabilization point for developed countries since the mid-20th-century.

Almost all the rush to the cities is occurring in the developing world (though the countryside continues to empty out in developed nations). The developing world is where the greatest poverty is, and where the highest birthrates have driven world population past 6.5 billion.

Hence my optimism. Cities cure poverty. Cities also drive birthrates down almost the instant people move to town. Women liberated by the move to a city drop their birthrate right on through the replacement rate of 2.1 children/woman. No one expected this, but that's how it worked out. As a result, there will be another billion or two people in the world total by midcentury, but then the total will head down--- perhaps rapidly enough to be a problem, as it already is in Russia and Japan.

Poverty in the megacities (over 10 million) and hypercities (over 20 million) of the developing world will be highly visible as the disaster it is. (It was worse out in the bush, only not as visible there. That's why people leave.) But the poor who were trapped in rural poverty create their own opportunity once they're in town by creating their own cities--- the "squatter cities" where one billion people now live. They recapitulate the creation of cities past by generating a seething informal economy in which everyone works. The dense slums, if they don't get bulldozed, eventually become part of the city proper and part of the formal economy. It takes decades...."

Again, the complete list of 160 responses can be found here.


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  • OT: Optimism

    I guess this is only partly off topic, because given the nature of the music biz, any time there is a chance to mention optimism we should take it. (Im actually very optimistic about the business of music moving forward. Less so about the cur…

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