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Today’s Leading Minds Rethink Everything

By John Brockman

Pub Date: Jan. 6th, 2009
ISBN: 978-0-06-168654-2
Publisher: Perennial/HarperCollins

Scientists, futurists and other pundits ruminate on roads not taken and missteps along the way.

Marvin Minsky, the pioneering cognitive scientist, once said that anyone interested in getting at the real answer to a question had better keep an open mind: “You have to form the habit of not wanting to have been right for very long.” He added, perhaps unhelpfully, that most other people won’t aid in the quest, since they’re “ignorant savages.” The contributors to Brockman’s salon are more kindly disposed, but they gamely address the annual question to which Brockman (Digerati, 1996, etc.) puts them—in this case, as the title says, how they’ve shaken off dogmas, preconceptions and misconceptions to rethink the Big Questions of Life. The noted musician and technologist Brian Eno remarks that doing this is important, just as it’s important for consumers of information to be interested in getting the facts right. In the greater scheme of things, he opines, it doesn’t really matter how many words the Eskimos have for snow, but “it does matter if they believe that Saddam Hussein was responsible for 9/11.” In somewhat dour spirit, former hipster stalwart Stewart Brand, now approaching 70, discards his previous conviction that old things are authentic and desirable: “New stuff is mostly crap, too, of course. But the best new stuff is invariably better than the best old stuff.” With more depth, psychologist Steven Pinker rethinks his previous conviction that humans unhooked themselves from evolution at the dawn of agriculture; the findings of the Human Genome Project suggest otherwise. Neoconservative computer guru David Gelernter observes how smart he’s been all along about newfangled things such as cloud computing, owning to being wrong only about the public’s attitude to technology (“cautious but not reactionary”). And so on, ranging from the paradoxical and puzzling to the matter of fact (cyberspace is just a place to make a buck; the world is indeed warming).

There’s some chaff here, but also plenty of insights for the scientifically curious.