What Should We Be Worried About?: Real Scenarios That Keep Scientists Up at Night
Edited by John Brockman
(Harper Perennial, 500 pages, $15.99)
Fifty-five years ago British novelist, mandarin, and ex-scientist C.P. Snow gave a lecture at Cambridge titled “The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution.” Snow deplored the mutual aloofness that, he said, existed between scientists and those educated in the humanities. The lecture set off a major public debate, and the phrase “two cultures” was for a time current all over the civilized world.
Thirty years after Snow’s lecture, literary agent John Brockman came up with the notion of a “third culture,” one in which the sciences had a central place and the humanities could be discussed by reference to them—most particularly, of course, by reference to the human sciences (psychology, human biology, demography, etc.). In 1988 he started the nonprofit Edge Foundation as a forum for these ideas; and in 1997 the foundation begat a web magazine, Edge.org, to spread the word.
The web magazine’s best-known feature is its Annual Question, posed to a wide selection of leading eggheads at the beginning of each year. The 2013 query—“What should we be worried about?”—drew 154 responses from a wide range of thinkers. All but one of their contributions are gathered here in book form. The missing worry is evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller’s concern about Chinese eugenics, one of the most interesting—and most commented-on—of them all. I don’t know the reason for this omission, and the book does not tell us. Miller’s piece can be read on the web magazine, as can all the others. The book is merely a concession to the Age of Print.
So what makes these boffins fret? Not altogether what you’d think. Seeing a title like this, one naturally anticipates apprehensions about asteroid impacts, worldwide plagues, erupting supervolcanos, nuclear terrorism, and such—the sorts of catastrophes that astronomer Martin Rees brought forth to make our flesh creep in his 2003 book Our Final Hour. (The British edition was titled Our Final Century, which is a little more upbeat.)
This book contains a certain amount of that, and Martin Rees himself shows up to reprise his fears: “I’m worried that by 2050 desperate efforts to minimize or cope with a cluster of risks with low probability but catastrophic consequences may dominate the political agenda.”
Along the same lines, psychologist Randolph Nesse worries about the fragility of our very interconnected world, in which your household water supply depends (to some degree) on the Internet. He reminds us of the 1859 Carrington Event, when the Sun burped out a blob of electrically-charged gas that, on striking our planet, blew the few primitive fuses then in use and set telegraph offices on fire. If that happened today, civilization would go into downtime.
Awareness of that fragility surfaces now and then throughout the book. Mathematician Steven Strogatz, in the book’s densest contribution (with density defined as quality of thought divided by length—Strogatz’s piece is a mere one-and-a-half pages) writes of “coupling,” by which he means “the ability of one part of a complex system to influence another.” Too much coupling, he argues, “makes a complex system brittle.”
Fragility, brittleness…It looks as though we need a materials physicist here. Nobody is listed as such in the contributor bylines. There are plenty of other kinds of physicists, though: fifteen by my count. What do they think we should be worried about?
To judge from the contributors here, the biggest worry physicists have is that their models of reality may be true! Columbia physicist Peter Woit frets at the success of the Large Hadron Collider’s finding the Higgs boson:
Now that we’ve finally seen Higgs particles they look all too much as if they’re behaving just as the Standard Model predicted they would.
What physicists face now is…the ‘Nightmare Scenario’ of the LHC finding a Standard Model Higgs and nothing more.
Underlying this and similar fears expressed by physicists is the possibility that their subject is drifting so far into metaphysics that observational or experimental validation may soon cease to be possible, leaving them with nothing to do except perhaps to migrate en masse to the Philosophy Department.
The sixty-year-old “multiverse” theories, for example, which posit that our entire universe is merely one of incalculably many others, gained ground just this month with some striking new observations of the “inflation” that occurred in the very young cosmos. Yet, as astrophysicist Mario Livio worries: “Parallel universes may be directly unobservable. And this is what keeps many physicists up at night.”
With all respect to these learned persons, isn’t this a bit narrow and selfish? Aren’t they just worried about losing their jobs?
For more disinterested worry topics, the human sciences are the place to go. Worries here are cultural, sometimes civilizational.
Many contributors worry about the enstupidation of humanity, though different writers trace different causes. Linguistic researcher Daniel Everett thinks college education is too vocational. Psychologist Nicholas Humphrey, in the spirit of Plato worrying that literacy would reduce the need for memory, blames the “fast knowledge” available on the Internet.
Cognitive Scientist Roger Schank blames “big corporations” who prefer their customers ignorant. That’s not politically anomalous: Rather a lot of the contributions are leftish. There is a modest batch that are communitarian, even utopian, in spirit. Thus political scientist Margaret Levi laments, as many have before her, that while selfishness is bad, selflessness inspires “terrorists and other zealots of the religious, nationalist, or political kind,” and pleads for “communities of fate.”
Writer Karl Sabbagh worries that science isn’t looking for “a biological basis of goodness.” Fifty years of work on altruism by evolutionary biologists like W.D. Hamilton and Robert Trivers have apparently escaped Sabbagh’s attention.
Some of the worries about enstupidation are more focused. Journalist William Poundstone worries about the “augmented reality” delivered by our smart gadgets. Channeling Dr. Malthus, he declares that “Consumer-level bandwidth is still growing exponentially, while our ability to deal with seductive distractions is stable or at best grows arithmetically.” Computer scientist Ursula Martin worries that science has lost the tradition of close observation, description, and illustration of the natural world exemplified by the great nineteenth-century naturalists.
My favorite in this line of worrying is mathematician Keith Devlin, who fears that math may come to an end because students no longer scribble equations with paper and pencil, preferring the specialist software packages used to input and display math expressions:
Our presentation technologies encourage form over substance. But if (free-form) scribbling goes away, then I think mathematics goes with it. You simply cannot do original mathematics at a keyboard. The cognitive load is too great.
Amongst all this worrying, there is a little oasis of relief halfway through the book, when Monty Python animator Terry Gilliam tells us, in the shortest of all the contributions, that “I’ve given up worrying. I merely float on a tsunami of acceptance of anything life throws at me…and marvel stupidly.”
I’m not sure one can float on a tsunami—not without worrying, at any rate—but I envy Mr. Gilliam his tranquility.
The book carries a modest sub-theme on metaworry—worrying about worry. Cognitive scientist Gary Klein: “I worry that the number of things we need to worry about keeps growing.” Psychologist Brian Knutson shares that metaworry and posits a “worry gap” between imagined and actual threats. He cautions, however, against hyperworry: “Escalating worrying about worrying could fuel a positive feedback loop, ending in a fearful freeze.”
A worrying prospect indeed.
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