This year, the Edge World Question Center asks people what they have changed their minds about. Here are excerpts from some of the most interesting answers. (Not that I necessarily agree with them.)
Joseph LeDoux changed his mind about how memories are accessed in the brain.
Like many scientists in the field of memory, I used to think that a memory is something stored in the brain and then accessed when used. Then, in 2000, a researcher in my lab, Karim Nader, did an experiment that convinced me, and many others, that our usual way of thinking was wrong. In a nutshell, what Karim showed was that each time a memory is used, it has to be restored as a new memory in order to be accessible later. The old memory is either not there or is inaccessible. In short, your memory about something is only as good as your last memory about it. This is why people who witness crimes testify about what they read in the paper rather than what they witnessed. Research on this topic, called reconsolidation, has become the basis of a possible treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder, drug addiction, and any other disorder that is based on learning.
Tor Nørretranders now thinks that it’s more appropriate to think of your body as software, rather than hardware.
What is constant in you is not material. An average person takes in 1.5 ton of matter every year as food, drinks and oxygen. All this matter has to learn to be you. Every year. New atoms will have to learn to remember your childhood.
Helen Fischer now believes that human beings are serial monogamists.
Perhaps human parental bonds originally evolved to last only long enough to raise a single child through infancy, about four years, unless a second infant was conceived. By age five, a youngster could be reared by mother and a host of relatives. Equally important, both parents could choose a new partner and bear more varied young.
Paul Steinhardt is now skeptical about inflation.
Most cosmologists would say the answer is “inflation,” and, until recently, I would have been among them. But “facts have changed my mind” — and I now feel compelled to seek a new explanation that may or may not incorporate inflation.
John Baez is no longer enthusiastic about working on quantum gravity.
Jaron Lanier put it this way: “One gets the impression that some physicists have gone for so long without any experimental data that might resolve the quantum-gravity debates that they are going a little crazy.” But even more depressing was that as this debate raged on, cosmologists were making wonderful discoveries left and right, getting precise data about dark energy, dark matter and inflation. None of this data could resolve the string-loop war! Why? Because neither of the contending theories could make predictions about the numbers the cosmologists were measuring! Both theories were too flexible.
Xeni Jardin is depressed by the lack of spontaneous self-moderation in online communities…
But then, the audience grew. Fast. And with that, grew the number of antisocial actors, “drive-by trolls,” people for whom dialogue wasn’t the point. It doesn’t take many of them to ruin the experience for much larger numbers of participants acting in good faith.
…but Kevin Kelly is impressed by the success of Wikipedia.
How wrong I was. The success of the Wikipedia keeps surpassing my expectations. Despite the flaws of human nature, it keeps getting better. Both the weakness and virtues of individuals are transformed into common wealth, with a minimum of rules and elites. It turns out that with the right tools it is easier to restore damage text (the revert function on Wikipedia) than to create damage text (vandalism) in the first place, and so the good enough article prospers and continues. With the right tools, it turns out the collaborative community can outpace the same number of ambitious individuals competing.
Oliver Morton has changed his mind about human spaceflight.
I have, falteringly and with various intermediary about-faces and caveats, changed my mind about human spaceflight. I am of the generation to have had its childhood imagination stoked by the sight of Apollo missions on the television — I can’t put hand on heart and say I remember the Eagle landing, but I remember the sights of the moon relayed to our homes. I was fascinated by space and only through that, by way of the science fiction that a fascination with space inexorably led to, by science. And astronauts were what space was about.
Jonathan Haidt no longer believes that sports and fraternities are entirely bad. (This is my favorite.)
I was born without the neural cluster that makes boys find pleasure in moving balls and pucks around through space, and in talking endlessly about men who get paid to do such things. I always knew I could never join a fraternity or the military because I wouldn’t be able to fake the sports talk. By the time I became a professor I had developed the contempt that I think is widespread in academe for any institution that brings young men together to do groupish things. Primitive tribalism, I thought. Initiation rites, alcohol, sports, sexism, and baseball caps turn decent boys into knuckleheads. I’d have gladly voted to ban fraternities, ROTC, and most sports teams from my university.
I came to realize that being a successful scientific heretic is harder than it looks.
Growing up as a young proto-scientist, I was always strongly anti-establishmentarian, looking forward to overthrowing the System as our generation’s new Galileo. Now I spend a substantial fraction of my time explaining and defending the status quo to outsiders. It’s very depressing.
Stanislas Deheane now thinks there may be a unified theory of how the brain works.
Although a large extent of my work is dedicated to modelling the brain, I always thought that this enterprise would remain rather limited in scope. Unlike physics, neuroscience would never create a single, major, simple yet encompassing theory of how the brain works. There would be never be a single “Schrödinger’s equation for the brain”…
Well, I wouldn’t claim that anyone has achieved that yet… but I have changed my mind about the very possibility that such a law might exist.
Brian Eno’s disillusionment with Maoism changed his views on how politics can be transformative.
And then, bit by bit, I started to find out what had actually happened, what Maoism meant. I resisted for a while, but I had to admit it: I’d been willingly propagandised, just like Shaw and Mitford and d’Annunzio and countless others. I’d allowed my prejudices to dominate my reason. Those professors working in the countryside were being bludgeoned and humiliated. Those designers were put in the steel-foundries as ‘class enemies’ — for the workers to vent their frustrations upon. I started to realise what a monstrosity Maoism had been, and that it had failed in every sense.
Anton Zeilinger now believes that you should never describe your own research as “useless.” (Hmmm…)
When journalists asked me about 20 years ago what the use of my research is, I proudly told them that it has no use whatsoever. I saw an analog to the usefulness of astronomy or of a Beethoven symphony. We don’t do these things, I said, for their use, we do them because they are part of what it means to be human. In the same way, I said, we do basic science, in my case experiments on the foundations of quantum physics. it is part of being human to be curious, to want to know more about the world. There are always some of us who are just curious and they follow their nose and investigate with no idea in mind what it might be useful for.
Martin Rees thinks we need to take the “Posthuman Era” seriously.
Public discourse on very long-term planning is riddled with inconsistencies. Mostly we discount the future very heavily — investment decisions are expected to pay off within a decade or two. But when we do look further ahead — in discussions of energy policy, global warming and so forth — we underestimate the possible pace of transformational change. In particular, we need to keep our minds open — or at least ajar — to the possibility that humans themselves could change drastically within a few centuries.
It might sound a little crazy, but betting against Sir Martin is a bad idea.