Sunday, July 19, 2009

Edited by Max Brockman
Vintage, $15, 256 pages

People’s exposure to the world of science is too often limited to watching the Discovery Channel or “reading” National Geographic. But the essence of science is not only what is happening today, but what could happen tomorrow. “What’s Next? Dispatches on the Future of Science” is a book of science essays collected and edited by Max Brockman. It boasts that the authors of the 18 original essays that make up this book come from a “new generation of scientists” and are the future of science.

The essays cover a range of topics. In “Will We Decamp for the Northern Rim?,” Lawrence C. Smith writes that the world can’t escape global warming, regardless of policy changes. Stephon H.S. Alexander discusses dark matter and vacuum energy in “Just What Is Dark Energy.” Vanessa Woods and Brian Hare’s “Out of Our Minds: How Did Homo sapiens Come Down From the Trees, and Why Did No One Follow?” notes the theory of evolution and its relation to humans is still a work in progress.

In his essay, “Watching Minds Interact,” Jason P. Mitchell argues that humans are superior because “natural selection has equipped us with an adaptation more fearsome than teeth or claws: the human brain.” He reports how neuroscience has begun to show “how exquisitely sensitive our minds are to the goings-on of the minds around us by suggesting that our brains spontaneously mirror the pattern of activity of other brains in our vicinity.” This is important because it means we’re social beings; “our brains prefer to be in register with the brains around us.”

In tandem, Matthew D. Lieberman’s “What Makes Big Ideas Sticky?” explores how minds relate to one another. Mr. Lieberman references great thinkers like Descartes, Thomas Aquinas and Plato and compares Eastern and Western religions, saying that while we would “like to think of our beliefs as stemming from some combination of logical analysis and peer influence,” they more likely come from genetic roots. This has been seen recently in multiple studies and Lieberman points to “Baldwin Way, a postdoctoral fellow in my lab at UCLA, [who] has recently come across a key genetic difference between individuals of Eastern and Western descent that differentially affects their brains.”

Religion and science are usually subjects that get along as well as water and oil, but it does not stop these scientists from tackling them. Evolution and the big bang theory are both discussed at length from differing perspectives in Sean Carroll’s “Our Place in an Unnatural Universe” and in Nick Bostrom’s “How to Enhance Human Beings.”

“Medical science is difficult,” writes Mr. Bostrom. “We know this because, despite our best efforts, it often fails. Yet medicine typically aims merely to fix something that’s broken. Human enhancement, by contrast, aims to take a system that’s not broken and make it better — in many ways a more ambitious goal.” He discusses enhancement to give people more mental energy, to increase DNA repair activity in cells, and improve concentration.

Whether scientists should even be making these types of changes is also called into question; the need to make ethical decisions in science are not uncommon, but Sam Cooke asks in his essay “Memory Enhancement, Memory Erasure: the Future of Our Past” whether scientists should. “Some may argue that it is not the role of scientists to make ethical judgments about the potential impact of their work — that such decisions are the job of the government, or the electorate, who should decide which scientific research is funded by public money and which is not.”

Nonetheless, Joshua D. Greene believes there is a science to making moral and ethical decisions. In his essay “Fruit Flies of the Moral Mind,” he discusses the “complex interplay between intuitive emotional responses and more effortful cognitive processes” involved with making moral judgments.

“People sometimes ask me why I bother with these bizarre hypothetical dilemmas,” says Mr. Greene. “Shouldn’t we be studying real moral decision making instead? To me, these dilemmas are like a geneticist’s fruit flies. They’re manageable enough to play around with in the lab but complex enough to capture something interesting about the wider and wilder world outside.” An interesting way to view moral dilemmas; it therefore should not be a surprise that Mr. Greene ends the essay wondering if we can ever “transcend the limitations of our moral instincts.” This is especially intriguing after reading Christian Keysers’ “Mirror Neurons: Are We Ethical By Nature?” and his remark that the “brain is ethical by design.”

The humanities and science are often looked at as irreconcilable, but like many of the scientists in this book, Lera Boroditsky shows how the two can be seen as interwoven. In her essay “How Does Our Language Shape the Way We Think?,” she finds that language is “central to our experience of being human, and the languages we speak profoundly shape the way we think, the way we see the world, the way we live our lives.”

Ms. Boroditsky is an associate professor at Stanford University, where she teaches psychology, neuroscience and symbolic studies. She has found through her research “how languages shape the way we think about space, time, colors, and objects. Other studies have found effects of language on how people construe events, reason about causality, keep track of number, understand material substance, perceive and experience emotion, reason about other people’s minds, choose to take risks, and even in the way they choose professions and spouses.” These findings are astounding when one considers how much science affects humanity.

In his preface, Mr. Brockman says of the scientists writing in this collection that “their ideas will eventually help to redefine who and what we are.” It is a claim well supported by this engaging book. Perhaps the world started with a bang, but if the scientists who contributed to “What’s Next?” have anything to do with it, it will certainly not end with a whimper.

Julie Robison, a student at Hillsdale College, is a summer intern at The Washington Times.

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