February 28, 2014
Science
What Should We Be Worried About?
Real Scenarios That Keep Scientists Up at Night

Edited by John Brockman Harper Perennial. 499 pp. Paperback, $15.99

Science

WHAT SHOULD WE BE WORRIED ABOUT?

Real Scenarios That Keep Scientists Up at Night

Edited by John Brockman Harper Perennial. 499 pp. Paperback, $15.99

Is it better to worry about the concrete and the immediate or the nebulous and the unclear? Is it better to worry about the things that hit home or the larger shifts in society? Or is it even worth it to worry at all?

’What Should We Be Worried About? edited by John Brockman (Harper Perennial/Harper Perennial)

Edge.org consulted an array of thinkers, scientists, academics and others, asking them what we should be worried about — or what they have stopped worrying about. (This is an annual exercise for Edge; past questions have included “How is the Internet changing the way you think?” and “What will change everything?”)

The answers have been gathered in “What Should We Be Worried About?,” a collection edited by Edge.org editor and founder John Brockman. The answers run the gamut from things we may see happening before our very eyes (Nicholas G. Carr, the author of “The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains,” frets about how the immediacy offered by our gadgets will make us more impatient in our offline lives) to things we’ve seen brought to life in science fiction (Seth Shostak, an astronomer at the SETI Institute, touches on the worry some have that “malevolent extraterrestrial beings” will be drawn to Earth by transmissions sent to other star systems).

Other contributors focus on everyday, persistent scourges. Xeni Jardin, a journalist who has written about her treatment for cancer, writes that we should worry because we still have no cure, no better methods of treatment, and no clear sense of causes or prevention.

Some of the answers focus on how our modern world is changing society, including Carr’s concerns about impatience and psychologist Susan Blackmore’s worry that we’re losing “our role in this world” because we’ve outsourced so many of “our manual skills to machines.” Others, such as Timo Hannay, the managing director of Digital Science, step back and look at grand questions of existence. Hannay delves into the mystery of consciousness, asking if we’re “fleeting specks of awareness” alone in the universe or if we’re surrounded by sentience; he argues that since we have consciousness, either possibility should worry us.

And yet perhaps there’s no point to any of the worrying. Journalist Virginia Heffernan invokes FDR in writing that “we have nothing to worry about but worry itself,” adding that nothing is gained in worrying and that “mindful acceptance of present reality” is everything. In that case, the greatest danger lies in going down the rabbit hole of concern. Which means this collection helps us see the myriad possible concerns laid out before us, articulating the various elements of fear that we need to fear.

Mark Berman

Mark Berman is a reporter on the National staff. He runs Post Nation, a destination for breaking news and developing stories from around the country.
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