Book Review: “This Will Change Everything: Ideas That Will Shape the Future”

reviewed by Gabriel Chong

ideas-that-will-change-everythingAs a science and technology website, Edge.org has a relatively tiny readership, which is a shame, because it is one of the hidden gems and most underrated portals on the internet. Presiding on what the editor, John Brockman dubs a ‘third culture’ of renewed communication between the sciences and non-sciences, Edge.org publishes very well-curated pieces on the most cutting-edge ideas in the sciences, the social sciences, philosophy, technology, and everything else in between. One of products engendered by this consilience is the Edge.org annual question series, in which about 200 of the world’s leading thinkers are posed with a singular, profound question every year.

This Will Change Everything is a compilation of responses to the 2009 Edge question, “What game-changing scientific ideas and developments do you live to see?” As one might expect, the responses more or less converged on a few common themes: climate change, biological engineering, nuclear war, ubiquitous computing, etc. But there were also a few more peripheral predictions: the discovery of a proof for the Riemann Hypothesis, the commercialisation of neurocosmetics, the evolution of masculine subjectivity, and the perfection of lie detectors, just to name a few. In celebration of the third culture, the experts do not necessarily comment on their field of expertise. Rather, we find divergences such as computer scientist David Gelernter proposing cluster schools as an improved model of education, theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss predicting the use of nuclear arms on civilians within his lifetime, philosopher Nick Bostrom musing on the emergence of superintelligence, and novelist Ian McEwan writing on the flourishing of solar technology. The length of the responses, too, is just as varied. Discover magazine editor-in-chief Corey S. Powell provides not one, but twelve predictions, ranging from the certain (the end of fossil fuels) to the highly unlikely (the confirmation of extrasensory powers). Meanwhile, architect Stefano Boeri sums up his thoughts elegantly in two sentences, “What will change everything? Discovering that someone from the future has already come to visit us.”

The book is a delight from the very first to the last page in its breadth of topics. Here is just a sample of some of the most intriguing responses:

1.       “Interstellar Viruses”. The discovery of extraterrestrial intelligent life is one of big game-changers, and science historian George Dyson argues that we have been searching for them in the wrong manner.  A technologically advanced civilisation, he postulates, would encode and propagate itself in the most economic manner possible – as pure digital information – and we are unlikely to recognise it as a life form even if it were already within our midst. In the closing paragraph, he recalls a poetic moment with the physicist Edward Teller, in which Teller encourages him to write a science-fiction book after Dyson had relayed his theory. Dyson dismissed his suggestion, noting, “Probably someone has”, while Teller answered, “Probably someone has not.”

2.       “The Idea of Negative and Iatrogenic Science”. Ever the firebrand, epistemologist Nassim Nicholas Taleb claims that the resistance towards negative results has crippled the institution of science. Particularly, iatrogenic science has been extremely harmful in the field of medicine, where the psychological comfort of active intervention has killed more people than passive non-intervention. The real work of science, Taleb argues, is myth-debunking and the rigorous establishments of the limits of knowledge.

3.       “Carniculture”. Philosopher Austin Daucey predicts that there will come, inevitably, a day when we will farm and harvest specific parts of animal bodies the way we do with plants in agriculture. Since cultured meat is fast becoming technologically possible, it will become a moral imperative for us to switch from husbandry to artificially cultivated meats, killing several birds with one stone: placating human appetite for flesh without the risks of growth hormones, viruses, unsustainable livestock farming, and most of all, the untold brutality of animal slaughter.

4.       “Beyond Boolean Logic, Digital Manipulations, and Numerical Evaluations”. Here, Mathematician Verena Huber-Dyson predicts something even more radical: the end of the scientific method as the de facto modus operandi of truth. She laments for the urgent need for applied ethics – knowing what to do with knowledge gained from science. But more than that, she anticipates an improved epistemological method, whereby the rigour of empirical testing will be complemented and amplified by intuition.

5.       “Avoiding Doomsday”. The doomsday argument goes something like this: small civilisations eventually evolved into large civilisations. But we have observed neither other small nor large civilisation. We are probably a small civilisation. The probability of a small civilisation surviving to evolve into a large civilisation is extremely low. So our chances of evolving into a large civilisation is extremely low. The theory has been a lightning rod for criticism within a small intellectual community ever since it was tabled by Brandon Carter decades ago. But physicist Alexander Vilenkin brings it to the fore fray, arguing that the very lack of observed intergalactic colonisation supports the doomsday argument, and that our crossing the threshold to becoming a large civilisation would be the ultimate game-changer.

About the Author

YONG WEI CHONG GABRIEL is a philosophy student at Wellesley College. Her column aims to break down popular topics in science into digestible bits for the lay reader. Gabriel can be contacted at gabrielle[at]scientificmalaysian.com. Find out more by visiting her Scientific Malaysian profile at http://www.scientificmalaysian.com/members/ gabrielle/