Brain Pickings

Future Science: Essays from the Cutting Edge

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Going beyond biology’s limits, or how laboratory advances will change the way we think about the law.

What consumes the best and brightest minds working in science today? With the brand-new anthology Future Science: Essays from the Cutting Edge, literary agent Max Brockman poses (and provides a spectrum of answers to) the question. From astronomy to virology to computer science, 19 first-rate researchers contributed short pieces to this collection, intended for the curious layperson. Their participation isn’t without risk since, as Brockman notes in his introduction, “if you’re an academic who writes about your work for a general audience, you’re thought by some of your colleagues to be wasting your time and perhaps endangering your academic career. For younger scientists (i.e., those without tenure), this is almost universally true.”

Given our optimism for the future and soft spot for intellectual anthologies, we’re certainly glad the contributors to Future Science took the chance. The result is a fascinating tour of academy’s advanced guard on, among other topics, why stress causes some people to crumble even as it spurs others on, what sense computer science can make of social media’s vast digital data, and how infinity has entered the realm of testable science. The breadth of subjects and their authors’ ability to make them accessible is thrilling — it’s like TED in book form.

Here’s just a small sampling from Future Science‘s contents:

For much of human history, we have been explorers of other continents — examiners of rocks and regions ripe for habitation, the culmination being the Heroic Age of Antarctic exploration and the capstone being our flags and footprints on the surface of the Moon. But in the decades and centuries to come, exploration — both human and robotic — will increasingly focus on the ocean depths, of both our own ocean and the subsurface oceans believed to exist on at least five moons of the outer Solar System: Jupiter’s Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto and Saturn’s Titan and Enceladus. The total volume of liquid water on those worlds is estimated to be more than a hundred times the volume of liquid water on Earth.” ~ Kevin P. Hand, “On the Coming Age of Ocean Exploration”

If humans are to succeed as a species, our collective shame over destroying other life-forms should grow in proportion to our understanding of their various ecological roles. Maybe the same attention to one another that promoted our own evolutionary success will keep us from failing the other species in life’s fabric and, in the end, ourselves.” ~ Jennifer Jacquet, “Is Shame Necessary”

This afternoon I received in the post a slim FedEx envelope containing four small vials of DNA. The DNA had been synthesized according to my instructions in under three weeks, at a cost of 39 U.S. cents per base pair (the rungs adenine-thymine or guanine-cytosine in the DNA ladder). The 10 micrograms I ordered are dried, flaky, and barely visible to the naked eye, yet once I have restored them in water and made an RNA copy of this template, they will encode a virus I have designed.” ~ William McEwan, “Molecular Cut and Paste: The New Generation of Biological Tools”

We were particularly excited about Future Science given Brockman’s own pedigree — his father, John Brockman, has spent a lifetime investigating audacious intellectual inquiries as founder of the EDGE Foundation. (In fact, prior to this new volume, the younger Brockman also edited a 2009 book for EDGE’s own imprint as a kind of prequel to Future Science called What’s Next? Dispatches on the Future of Science.)

For a provocative survey of the ever-expanding scientific frontier, you’ll find much to enjoy among the big ideas, probing techniques, and intriguing insights of Future Science.

Kirstin Butler is writing an adaptation of Gogol for the Google era called Dead SULs, but when not working spends far, far too much time on Twitter. She currently lives in Cambridge, MA.

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