Dangerous liaisons

Posted by Francis Reddy
on Wednesday, May 16, 2007

In 1959, British scientist and novelist C. P. Snow suggested that what slowed progress in solving the world's problems was a communications breakdown: scientists and artists no longer talked to one another.

The title of his University of Cambridge Rede Lecture, "The Two Cultures," has become a shorthand for the problem. Some rankled at Snow's extreme characterization of scientists — and most notably, physical scientists — existing at the opposite intellectual pole of writers and artists. In fact, later, even Snow recognized this was a little over the top, and argued that a third culture would emerge to bridge the gap.

In 1991, John Brockman picked up on this idea. But where Snow expected a third-culture literati would be on speaking terms with scientists, Brockman saw scientists directly engaging the general public. Think Carl Sagan, Richard Dawkins, Stephen Jay Gould, Martin Rees, Brian Greene, and Jared Diamond, for starters.

Brockman founded the nonprofit Edge Foundation, Inc. and is publisher and editor of Edge, an acclaimed web site chock full of third-culture posters. Each year, he asks his contributors to address a single question, which brings me to Brockman's latest book: What is Your Dangerous Idea? Today's Leading Thinkers on the Unthinkable.

The danger of the ideas in these brief essays comes not from their being false, but from the possibility of their being true. Frank J. Tipler, a physicist at Tulane University, hopes the standard model of particle physics is wrong. Why? "The standard model says that there is a way to convert all the mass of ordinary matter into energy. ... Particle physicists have long known about this possibility but have considered it forever irrelevant to human technology ... because the energy required is at the very limit of our most powerful accelerators."

But if the model is correct, he thinks it may be possible to convert 100 kilograms of mass into pure energy with a device that could be easy to manufacture and would fit into the trunk of a car. Such a device would solve the world's energy problems — and make an explosive weapon with a 1,000-megaton yield.

What other dangerous ideas await? Here's a sampling: The soul does not exist; genes affect behavior, talent, and temperament; we are entirely alone in the universe; more anonymity is good; science must destroy religion; science is just another religion; religion is the hope that's missing in science; the concept of the multiverse; the sharing of dangerous ideas; the idea that ideas can be dangerous; and plenty more.

What is Your Dangerous Idea? is an eye-opening romp through the frontiers of what-might-be.

The book in brief: What is Your Dangerous Idea? Today's Leading Thinkers on the Unthinkable, edited by John Brockman, 336 pages, Harper Perennial, 2007, paperback, $13.95

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