WHAT’S NEXT? edited by Max Brockman

Book Quote:

“The eighteen young scientists featured here are investigating a variety of questions that will have long-term and fundamental effects on the way we live — and even on how we see ourselves and our place in the universe. Their ideas will eventually help to redefine who and what we are.”

Book Review:

Review by Kirstin Merrihew (AUG 28, 2009)

Max Brockman is a literary agent for such prominent scientists/authors as Jared Diamond, Richard Dawkins, and Steven Pinker. In this anthology, What’s Next? Dispatches on the Future of Science, the contributors have, for the most part, yet to establish themselves in the public consciousness; many of them earned their Ph.Ds within the last ten years, and the earliest doctorate among them dates to 1993. But within their fields, they are doing groundbreaking research and writing books that could ultimately rival those of Pinker, Dawkins and Diamond.

Of the eighteen essayists, David M Eagleman registered most with me because he recently authored SUM: Forty Tales from the Afterlives, proving himself able to agilely apply his neuroscience background to wonderfully fanciful fables. In What’s Next? Eagleman contributes “Brain Time,” an apparent run-up to his forthcoming 2010 book, Plasticity: How the Brain Reconfigures Itself. On Eagleman’s website, a section entitled “Time Perception” links to “Time and the Brain (or What’s happening in the Eagleman lab).” В This online article covers some of the same ground as “Brain Time” but the What’s Next? chapter utilizes a different hook to begin: Kublai Khan.

Eagleman explains that the Mongolian empire “had grown so vast” that the messengers he sent out to the far reaches for status reports returned at different times. Eagleman compares: “I imagine that the Great Khan was constantly forced to solve the same problem a human brain has to solve: what event in the empire occurred in which order?” By conducting some experiments, Eagleman and his team are trying to tease apart how our brains synchronize outside signals and present a smoother progression of time than “actually” exists. He notes: “It may be that a unified polysensory perception of the world has to wait for the slowest overall information.” He envisions far-reaching applications for continued study, suggesting that “the more distant future of time research may change our view of other fields, such as physics….[A]s we begin to understand time as a construction of the brain, as subject to illusion…we may eventually be able to remove our perceptual biases from the equation.”

Quite a few of the contributions in What’s Next? deal with biological or psychological aspects of human sentience. For instance, Joshua D. Greene, a cognitive neuroscientist, writes about “Fruit Flies of the Moral Mind,” a discussion of why people, when confronted with moral dilemmas requiring life and death decisions, tend to choose as they do. Why Is it “easier” for experiment subjects to agree that five people in the path of an oncoming train should be saved by diverting the train to another track where it will only kill one person, but balk when told pushing a single person nearby onto the tracks to stop the train is the way to save those five? Is it because the more personal act of pushing someone engages our emotions more? Are moral decisions then more likely to be based on emotion than rationality? These and similar dilemmas are being tested by Greene and his colleagues. He opines: “Perhaps by applying our capacity for complex cognition to the problems of modern life, we can transcend the limitations of our moral instincts.” More on that conclusion later.

Greene isn’t the only one of the eighteen young scientists whose enthusiasm for experimental progress potentially downplays or supercedes ethics. Nick Bostrom, a polymath currently the director of the Future of Humanity Institute, writes “How to Enhance Human Beings.” Although he acknowledges “that there is a grain of truth in the idea that nature has some wisdom,” he thinks “by systematically considering the limitations of the evolutionary process that created the human organism, we can identify promising possibilities for enhancing it….” For example, “genetic screening during in vitro fertilization could be used to guarantee heterozygosity, enabling us to reach the ideal optimum that eluded natural selection.” However he tempers that designer inclination by adding that if science were to reach the point where it were “[f]reed from most practical limitations, the task would then become to make wise use of our powers to self-modify. In other words, the challenge would shift from being primarily scientific to being primarily moral.”

Christian Keysers, again a neuroscientist, joins the conversation about ethics by sharing the results of some studies in “Mirror Neurons.” Experiments indicate that certain neurons in the brain trigger when watching another perform an action. One trial with monkeys showed that the “very same neuron that had responded when the monkey grasped a peanut also responded when the monkey simply saw someone else perform the same action.” But the empathy extends beyond actions. Mirror neurons allow us to “feel [others] actions, sensations, and emotions inside us, as if we were in their shoes. Others have become us.” Keysers continues that these “shared circuits create an ethical instinct” that binds us together and promotes moral and ethical behavior.

To return then to the idea that we could “transcend the limitations of our moral instincts” as a matter of experimental manipulation or as a result of scientific reductionism, such as aspiration could dehumanize us. Scientific inquiry and applications are already showing signs of outpacing our philosophical/rational abilities to assess them. Rushing forward without a constructive ethical and moral framework could well do more harm than good to humanity. The two should progress abreast. Our moral instincts, which are demonstrably (Keysers) a part of us, greatly define our humanity, and our goal should be to understand and clarify those instincts, not consider them limitations to transcend.

Despite the skewing toward neuroscience, What’s Next? does not neglect other branches such as physics and cosmology, earth science, and anthropology, as I will elaborate below. However, where are essays featuring chemistry, computer science, engineering and a few other disciplines that would have further broadened this anthology’s scope? One is left wondering whether this group of contributors is meant to be representative of where brilliant younger scientists are concentrating their talents. But perhaps we should not draw that conclusion. Perhaps another anthology is needed to corral the future of other branches of science?

Anyway, back to the contents of What’s Next?, Cosmologist Sean Carroll ponders “Our Place in the Unnatural Universe,” admitting the cosmos still haven’t yielded their secrets — either of origin or future. He is followed by physics professor Stephon H. S. Alexander who asks “Just What is Dark Energy?” Also known as the cosmological constant, dark energy “is the most bewildering substance known — the only ‘stuff’ that acts both on subatomic scales and across the largest distances in the cosmos.” As of yet, dark energy is theory, so any physicist or astronomer who empirically proves its existence will doubtless receive honors and fame.

Moving to geographic studies and global weather patterns, Laurence C. Smith explores the likelihood that human demographics may have to change drastically in this century in “Will We Decamp for the Northern Rim?” And in “Extinction and the Evolution of Humankind,” Katerina Harvati, a paleoanthropologist, examines the recurring question of how and why the Neanderthals became extinct with a view toward our own predicament as “our activities have been taxing Earth’s ecosystems and most probably shifting its climate.” The Neanderthals were not able to adjust and survive. She writes, “we must once more adjust our remarkably flexible behavior to meet the unprecedented challenge of climate change and a bio-diversity crisis approaching the scale of mass extinction.”

Gavin Schmidt, who writes the final essay, “Why Hasn’t Specialization Led to the Balkanization of Science?,” notes, “It has been suggested that the physicist, physician, and Egyptologist Thomas Young (1773-1829) was the last person to ‘know everything.” Certainly, our scientific knowledge has grown in so many directions that often one discipline (earth science, for instance) doesn’t know much about what a subdiscipline (paleoceanography) is doing. Yet, although it may take time, these “are human constructs, and they are simply no match for the forces of nature.” Sooner or later, the desire to know overcomes human barriers and information sharing takes place.

But what still lags behind even when scientific borders crumble is the mechanism by which we control science’s advancement. Ideally, the achievements of science will only enhance life — it quality, its length, its dignity. Science done with unwavering respect for life benefits us. However, science untethered from reasoned ethics becomes a potential danger. Science that does not properly assess the ramifications of brain complexity, in vitro manipulation, planetary climate tinkering, nuclear power, etc., can cause catastrophic consequences.These young scientists, dedicated to furthering the boundaries of science, need to recognize their responsibility to advance within the signposts of ethics and morals. Most of these eighteen contributors clearly understand that burden. A few ought perhaps to reassess.

What’s Next? offers, straight from the sources, an educational preview into certain areas of scientific study that is both valuable and eye-opening, especially for avid readers of popular science. But what is perhaps most important is learning about the personal values and perspectives of each of the contributors. In the choice of their areas of interest and how they pursue their studies, as well as how they express themselves, they reveal where science is headed in their hands. This is vital information since Brockman is, of course, correct: “Their ideas will eventually help to redefine who and what we are.”

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-4-5from 5 readers
PUBLISHER: Vintage (May 26, 2009)
REVIEWER: Kirstin Merrihew
AMAZON PAGE: What’s Next? Dispatches on the Future of Science
EXTRAS: Excerpt
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: More books like this:

The Genomics Age by Gina Smith

Tomorrow Now by Bruce Sterling


August 28, 2009 В· Judi Clark В· No Comments
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