A brilliant ensemble of the world's most visionary scientists provides twenty-five original never-before-published essays about the advances in science and technology that we may see within our lifetimes.
Theoretical physicist and bestselling author Paul Davies examines the likelihood that by the year 2050 we will be able to establish a continuing human presence on Mars. Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi investigates the ramifications of engineering high-IQ, geneticially happy babies. Psychiatrist Nancy Etcoff explains current research into the creation of emotion-sensing jewelry that could gauge our moods and tell us when to take an anti-depressant pill. And evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins explores the probability that we will soon be able to obtain a genome printout that predicts our natural end for the same cost as a chest x-ray. (Will we want to read it? And will insurance companies and governments have access to it?) This fascinating and unprecedented book explores not only the practical possibilities of the near future, but also the social and political ramifications of the developments of the strange new world to come.
Agent Brockman has collected 25 of his writers to discuss the future of science in their respective fields of study. Several of these writers surpass ordinary trend spotting to entertain some rather pulse-quickening ideas completely beyond the kin of the so-called dominant paradigm. And some are of a magnitude to radically advance the nature of humans' interaction with each other, the planet and beyond. The neurologist Robert Sapolsky, for example, posits that sadness will take its place alongside AIDS and Alzheimer's as the most notorious medical disasters of the next half-century. Brockman, who is also an author-editor (The Third Culture; The Greatest Inventions of the Past 2,000 Years, etc.), divides his collection into two parts: the future in theory and the future in practice. Theoretical topics include cosmology, what it means to be alive, the nature of consciousness and the possibility of extraterrestrial intelligence. Mars exploration, DNA sequencing, neuroscience, child rearing and the like are addressed in the practical half. These essays can be quite technical, intended as they are to make the latest scientific information available for cross-disciplinary research. The intellectual adventures collected here point to a future that is dazzlingly bright, at least to the eyes of these unorthodox thinkers. The general public, for whom these essays are also written, should be similarly bedazzled.
Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information, Inc.
-- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
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May 13, 2002
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Excerpt from The Next Fifty Years by John Brockman
The Future of the Nature
of the Universe
We are asked to predict the state of our science fifty years from today. Fifty years is a long time, given the pace at which physics and cosmology have progressed over the last several hundred years. But perhaps it is not too long a time to make predictions that will not seem entirely stupid by then. If you look back over the history of science, you will see that often the important questions people were asking had been answered fifty years later. And yet the progress of science has usually been slow enough that people speak roughly the same language as their colleagues working in the same field fifty years earlier.
Let's look back fifty years, then, and note what the big questions were. My own list would include:
1)What is the nature of the strong force that holds atomic nuclei together?
2)What is the nature of the weak force responsible for radioactive decay?
3)Is the Steady State model of the universe right, or might there have been a Big Bang, as speculated by Gamow and other fringe figures?
4)Do protons and neutrons have any internal structure?
5)Why do the proton and neutron have slightly different masses, while the electron is much lighter than either? Why is the neutrino massless? What is the muon and who ordered it?
6)What is the relationship between general relativity and quantum theory?
7)What is the right way to understand the quantum theory?
I think we can confidently assert that now we know the answers to the first four questions. We are still working on the last three. But the first have not been forgotten; indeed, the methods by which those questions were answered form the basis of the training of a theoretical physicist today.
If we look back a hundred years, however, we find that we no longer care about many of the questions people were asking then. I'm not enough of a historian to write a list of questions asked by physicists at the turn of the last century, but they would likely have been more concerned with the properties of the ether than with the properties of atoms. There was no evidence for the existence of physical atoms until a few years later--and, indeed, in 1900 many physicists did not believe that atoms existed. Others, like Ernst Mach, thought the question was not a part of physics because atoms would never be observed. As for astronomy, there was no evidence in 1900 for the existence of galaxies apart from our own Milky Way, nor did anyone have any idea what made the stars shine. So while physicists of the early 1950s would probably have understood the questions that physicists are asking now, no one at the beginning of the twentieth century could have understood even the words that physicists were using in 1950 to talk to each other.
Sometimes science changes so little over fifty years that it makes sense to try to predict what we will know after that span. But there are periods when progress is faster and this is no longer the case. It seems that there is a horizon, somewhere between fifty and a hundred years into the future, beyond which it may be useless to speculate in any detail about the progress of science.
Let's take a moment to consider why this is so. It's probably partly because fifty years is about the length of a scientific career, from the beginning of studies until retirement. This, then, is the span of time over which the conservative tendencies built into the structure of scientific careers act to retard the progress of science. Science is hard, and we scientists prefer to have as good an understanding of what we're doing as possible; thus, unless forced to do otherwise, we prefer to work with techniques and ideas we already understand well. Another factor is that the careers of young scientists are often controlled by senior people nearing retirement, who are in many cases no longer active and therefore unfamiliar with new techniques. Career-savvy graduate students, no matter how imaginative, hesitate to work on something not understood by the powerful old men and women of their field. Thus, in order to think about what my science will be like in fifty years, I imagine what the brightest of my graduate students will be talking about at their retirement parties. My guess is that unless they are forced by data they cannot otherwise explain to make a revolution comparable to that of the early twentieth century, they will be using the language we've taught them. If that's the case, the present exercise may be useful--though the romantics among us would rather anticipate a revolution than confirmation of our own beliefs.