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This Will Change Everything March 4, 2010

Posted by isotopeeffect in Uncategorized.
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This Will Change Everything is the title of a book (subtitle: Ideas That Will Shape The Future) edited, or perhaps assembled would be a better word, by John Brockman of the Edge Foundation. Brockman posed the question “What game-changing scientific ideas and developments do you expect to live to see?” to over 100 high-profile individuals drawn from fields including physics, biology, psychology, philosophy, information science, writing, and music. The book is a compilation of their responses, ranging from the gnomic (“Discovering that someone from the future has already come to visit us,” is the complete response of Stefano Boeri) to the fairly short (three pages being about the longest entry). It’s a perfect book to take along on spring break. But is it any good?

Two of the pieces (The Use of Nuclear Weapons against a Civilian Population by Lawrence Krauss and Adopting Rationality and Sustainability by Patrick Bateson) open with the same quotation, by Albert Einstein: “The release of atom power has changed everything except our way of thinking.” This proves, perhaps, that that both authors are fans of Einstein for whom the phrase “change everything” rang a bell, or perhaps that both are adept at Googling. It also serves as evidence that Einstein was good not only for explanations of relativity, the photoelectric effect, Brownian motion, and mass-energy equivalence (all of this in 1905, his annus mirabilis), but could also come up with witty epigrams to rival Woody Allen’s “My one regret in life is that I am not someone else.”

The titles of the pieces could be the names of short stories by J. G. Ballard. Examples:

The Robotic Moment

Breaking the Species Barrier

Avoiding Doomsday

The Ebb of Memory

Wisdom Reborn

The Reality of Time

The Slow-Motion Revolution

Perhaps unsurprisingly given the premise, many of the pieces do indeed read a little bit like outlines for science fiction stories.

There is some rough grouping based on content: sudden climate change, new energy sources, nuclear accidents, the interface between man and computer, synthetic life, the future of reading and learning. Some of the pieces are plausible, some less so. Some are startlingly insightful and intellectually stimulating; some, not so much.

The topic I found most interesting, curiously enough, is a biological one, represented in two pieces, one by Robert Shapiro (a chemist) and one by Paul Davies (a physicist). Davies’ piece (Shadow Biosphere) is the more striking. The “tree of life” present on Earth today is understood to consist of a single set of interrelated species all sharing a single genetic code and having a common origin. BUT… at the same time, almost all living things on Earth are microbes, and only a tiny fraction of microbial life has been studied to date. It is possible that there was a second, or even a third, origin of life, and that we share the planet with the products of this other genesis, a “shadow biosphere”. These micro-organisms would be extremely hard to detect, because detection and identification methods have been developed to study life “as we know it”. Wild speculation, perhaps, but thought-provoking, and experimentally-testable (if you can get the grant funding).