EVERY YEAR SINCE 1996, the online salon Edge has e-mailed a question to scientists and thinkers about the state of the world. This year's question was: "What are you optimistic about?" Below are excerpts of some of the responses. For full responses (and those of other contributors), go to www.edge.org.
The big answer
By Richard Dawkins
I am optimistic that the physicists of our species will complete Albert Einstein's dream and discover the final theory of everything before superior creatures, evolved on another world, make contact and tell us the answer.
I am optimistic that although the theory of everything will bring fundamental physics to a convincing closure, the enterprise of physics itself will continue to flourish, just as biology went on growing after Charles Darwin solved its deep problem. I am optimistic that the two theories together will furnish a totally satisfying naturalistic explanation for the existence of the universe and everything that's in it, including ourselves. And I am optimistic that this final scientific enlightenment will deal an overdue deathblow to religion and other juvenile superstitions.
RICHARD DAWKINS\o7, an evolutionary biologist, is a professor at Oxford. He is the author, most recently, of "The God Delusion."
By Max Tegmark
When gazing up on a clear night, it's easy to feel insignificant. Since our earliest ancestors admired the stars, our human egos have suffered a series of blows.
For starters, we're smaller than we thought. Eratosthenes showed that Earth was larger than millions of humans, and his Hellenic compatriots realized that the solar system was thousands of times larger still. Yet for all its grandeur, our sun turned out to be merely one rather ordinary star among hundreds of billions in a galaxy that, in turn, is merely one of billions in our observable universe, the spherical region from which light has had time to reach us during the 14 billion years since our Big Bang. Our lives are small temporally, as well as spatially: If this 14-billion-year cosmic history were scaled to one day, then 100,000 years of human history would be four minutes, and a 100-year life would be 0.2 seconds. Further deflating our hubris, we've learned that we're not that special either. Charles Darwin taught us that we're animals; Sigmund Freud taught us that we're irrational; machines now outpower us, and just last month, Deep Fritz outsmarted chess champion Vladimir Kramnik. Adding insult to injury, cosmologists have found that we're not even made out of the majority substance.
The more I learned about this, the less significant I felt. Yet, in recent years, I've suddenly turned more optimistic about our cosmic significance. I've come to believe that advanced, evolved life is very rare, yet has huge growth potential, making our place in space and time remarkably significant.
Our universe contains countless other solar systems, many of which are billions of years older than ours. Enrico Fermi pointed out that if advanced civilizations have evolved in many of them, then some have a vast head start on us -- so where are they? I don't buy the explanation that they're all choosing to keep a low profile: Natural selection operates on all scales, and as soon as one life form adopts expansionism (sending off rogue, self-replicating interstellar nanoprobes, say), others can't afford to ignore it. I think that life can expand to engulf our observable universe, and that it will be determined here on this planet during this century whether it will ever happen.
MAX TEGMARK \o7is a physicist at MIT.
A fading boom
By Jonathan Haidt
I am optimistic about the future of social science research because the influence of the baby boom generation on the culture and agenda of the social sciences will soon decrease. Don't get me wrong. Many of my best friends are boomers, and, technically, I'm one too. But if there is a sensitive period for acquiring a moral and political orientation, it is the late teens and early 20s, and most of those whose sensitive periods included the Vietnam War and the struggles for civil rights seem to have been permanently marked by those times. Many young people who entered doctoral programs in the social sciences during the 1970s did so with the hope of using their research to reduce oppression and inequality. This moral imprinting of a generation of researchers may have had a few detrimental effects on the (otherwise excellent) science they produced. Here are two: