Keeping tabs on science: a belated nod to this year’s Edge question

Each year since the late 1990s, John Brockman, the polymathic editor and agent who runs the Edge website, has devised a question and sought answers from the many thinkers—almost all of them are scientists—who contribute to his site. Brockman presents the answers online, and for a while now he’s also been publishing them as books, though these take a while to appear. In 2005, he asked, “What do you believe is true even though you cannot prove it?” In 2010, the question was “How is the Internet changing the way you think?” Last year, he asked, “What do you think about machines that think?” Over time, Brockman has expanded the range of people from whom he seeks answers; last year, for instance, theater director Richard Foreman was among those who responded to the subject of thinking machines. This year, you can find among the respondents an artist, a few journalists, a businessman, a historian, a professor of art history, and a handful of people who identify themselves as poets or philosophers among other pursuits.

The Edge question for 2016 is “What do you consider the most interesting recent [scientific] news? What makes it important?” (The bracketed term is in the original.) The answers, which were posted a few weeks back, number nearly 200. I’ve read maybe half of them so far and feel better for it.

Why do I feel better? Why does this annual exercise matter? Edge contributors and the fields they represent are changing the world; it’s important, and also rewarding, to learn what they’re up to, how they think, what they’re thinking about. Besides, there’s something particularly encouraging about the answers to this year’s question. It’s possible to imagine that the world today isn’t much different from the world last week, or last month, or last year. Here’s proof that progress is being made—that we know more, understand more, and can do more now than was true a year or so in the past. As a matter of fact, progress is the explicit subject of one of the answers. It’s not all good news; some of the answers simply report new efforts to grapple with old and so far intractable problems, but that’s worth hearing too.

Below are notes on a few of the responses that I found striking. You can find the full set here.

  • John C. Mather on “Bayesian Program Learning” outlines a new approach to AI, which he says makes him “both thrilled and frightened.”
  • Steven Pinker reports that human progress is increasingly susceptible to quantification and that things are looking up.
  • George Dyson praises progress in rocketry, specifically the proof that launch vehicles could be safely returned to the ground for reuse.
  • S. Abbas Raza welcomes the English-language publication of Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century for clarifying the serious and growing problem of wealth inequality.
  • Rebecca Newberger Goldstein explains that a study published in Science offers new insight into the gender gap in many academic fields and suggests a broader cultural problem—a gender bias in our view of geniuses. She doesn’t say so, but identifying an unconscious bias makes it possible for us consciously to correct it, and this is a valuable advance.
  • Thomas Metzinger’s response, about the upcoming launch of many virtual-reality headsets, points out that consciousness is itself a form of virtual reality, a mental construction of the world.
  • Randolph Nesse, commenting on the CRISPR-Cas9 technique for gene editing, predicts that it will “transform life utterly.” For what it’s worth, this would also be my pick for the most important recent science news.
  • Mark Pagels also singles out the CRISPR technique, predicts that the current moratorium on its application to humans won’t last long, and rather surprisingly announces that “the first truly and thoroughly designed humans are…on our doorsteps, waiting to be allowed in.”
  • Susan Blackmore discusses what was learned about “the dress,” a widely shared photograph that appeared to different people in different colors.
  • Lee Smolin reminds us that fundamental physics is “frustratingly incomplete” and that the big news from last year is that there was no news to change this.
  • Brian Christian elegantly discusses computational linguistics with reference to a concept that Ezra Pound introduced, logopoeia, and shows that science is increasingly able to say something about the meanings of individual words within a vast body of spoken and written language. You may think, Isn’t that what dictionaries are for? Read his comment, which turns on a court case involving a corporation and the concept of personhood, and you’ll get the idea.
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