What Should We Be Worried About?


What keeps scientist awake at night?  The book “What Should We Be Worried About?” is a very interesting slant on today’s world and where we are heading (ISBN978-0-06-229623-8, Harper Collins Publishers, 2014).

The editor of this book is John Brockman, a chap who began the Edge, an on-line forum for ideas which Brockman calls, “Frontiers in such areas as evolutionary biology, genetics, computer science, neurophysiology, psychology, cosmology and physics.”  To those diverse fields, Brockman proposes a question to be pondered as an annual event.  This year the question was “What should we be worried about?”

The respondents come from an amazingly eclectic group and includes in its number Seth Shostak, an astronomer; Marco Iocoboni, a neuroscientist and Professor of psychiatry; Peter Woit, a mathematical physicist; Bruce Parker, a visiting Professor at the center for Maritime Systems, Stevens Institute of Technology; Aubrey De Grey, a gerontologist and Margaret Levi, a political scientist, and another 480 of these luminaries.

With writers coming from such diverse backgrounds, you are going to get a huge range of things we should be worried about.  For example, Aubrey De Grey is worrying about the disproportionate allocation of funds to study aging, where life saving research is being passed over because there is no positive intermediate results – the “now” style of thinking even permeates the hallowed halls of academia.  He finishes his piece saying, “… To benefit humanity is to agitate for better understanding of probabilistic reasoning among policy makers, opinion formers, and thence the public.”  De Grey doesn’t enjoy the thought of getting older either!  I think most of the readers and myself would acknowledge that worry.

Vernor Vinge’s essay is on wars “… Fought under a doctrine of mutually assured destruction (MAD).”  This type of warfare was threatened in the 20th century but if we can avoid blowing ourselves up, the future is rosy.

Steve Giddings, a theoretical physicist looks at black holes and worries about their significance to us mortals on planet earth and opines “… I am deeply concerned about how we will arrive at a complete and consistent theory of gravity.”  Unless we do get over this conundrum, on something we all take for granted, Giddings predicts a dark-energy-dominated future for society.  “The current problems at the foundations link to many big questions – and I fear it will be no small feat to resolve them.”

At B. 545 this is a very heavy book which produces almost 500 answers to the Edge question for this year.  Amazingly, whilst all the respondents gave their ideas on what should be a worrisome answer, the vast majority did not feel that the end of the world is nigh.  The potential for self-destruction was there, but the writers felt that the human intelligence was such that invoking nuclear wars, for example, did not do anyone any good in the long run.

This is not light reading for a wet weekend, but even though the chapters are generally only two pages long, there is enough in those chapters to make the reader think and digest as well.  I really enjoyed this book.