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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