An end to war. A human colony on Mars. Novel cancer therapies.
These are but a few of the responses to the 2007 Edge Annual Question, 'What are you optimistic about?'
Every year, Edge, a website devoted to science, poses a question to its contributors. (Previous questions include 'What is Your Dangerous Idea? and 'What is the Most Important Invention in the Past Two Thousand Years?')
This year, 161 leading scientists and thinkers share what they are optimistic about _ and why. Some of their causes for optimism are simple (new children will be born); others, complex (hope that the longawaited physics experiments set to begin this year at the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland will lead to exciting discoveries about matter, gravity and the world.)
Some write of their hopes for humanity: optimism that people will 'increasingly value truth (over truthiness), 'that they'll continue to display a 'core decency' and that they'll take advantage of the fact that, for the first time, the majority of humankind 'is connected and has a voice.' Others write of their hopes for science: artificial intelligence, treatments for diseases, ways to see beyond our cosmic horizon and learn more about the universe.
Almost all of the responses are compelling. (To see them yourself, go to http://edge.org/q2007/q07_index.html). Reading them made me think about how I would answer the question, as a layperson setting aside small, personal hopes for a moment to consider the big picture.
I'm optimistic about the future of medicine. Both the science and the technology to support it are moving forward with great speed. The Human Genome Project opened huge doors, stem-cell research holds tremendous promise, and there's no question that both will lead to new cures, better treatments, and ultimately, the chance for longer, moreproductive lives.
I'm optimistic about medical research even while I realize that as much as we learn and discover, we will never be able to cure every disease and solve every problem. There will always be new diseases and conditions, created by the evolution of our species, our environment and even our culture. We've nearly eradicated smallpox and polio, but we've got AIDS, obesity and the threat of a bird flu pandemic. We can't know what question will arise next, but I'm optimistic that we'll never stop looking for answers.
This work is complicated by the fact that sometimes, we eliminate one threat while unwittingly contributing to another. For example, public health efforts and our obsession with cleanliness have reduced or wiped out many infectious diseases in the industrialized world, but they may also have led to the increasing rate of autoimmune disorders such as asthma, Type 1 diabetes, multiple sclerosis and inflammatory bowel disease. Doctors and scientists are testing the theory that our bodies need certain kinds of parasitic worms, and without them, our immune systems can malfunction. New therapies for inflammatory bowel disease are already being developed based on this research, and scientists are hopeful that it will also lead to better treatments for other autoimmune diseases.
I'm optimistic that climate change and the need for alternative energy sources will soon become top priorities for the U.S. government. For the first time, it truly seems possible that things will start to change in big ways. Thanks to the movies, the media and high gas prices, people are more aware of these issues. Even conservative religious leaders are acknowledging that global warming exists. The prospect of a new president is further cause for hope. It's also encouraging to see so many scientists expressing optimism about these issues. Their ideas range from establishing a system of personal carbon credits to capturing solar energy using nanotechnology. I love the vision presented by neurobiologist William Calvin of a world where people travel by rapid transit system or in electric and hydrogen-powered vehicles; get their power from wind farmers and solar panels; and, instead of driving to brightly lit superstores, walk to neighborhood markets.
Mostly, I'm optimistic that so many people answered the question. Scientists are always searching for answers and looking for ways to improve things. If they are driven by hope for a better world, that's good news for the rest of us. As long as people with the power to effect change are asking questions, imagining possibilities and working for the common good, there's cause for optimism.
Lisa Miller is a freelance writer who lives in Oneonta. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
An end to war. A human colony on Mars. Novel cancer therapies.
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