Picture: THINKSTOCK
Picture: THINKSTOCK

Know This: Today’s Most Interesting and Important Scientific Ideas, Discoveries, and Developments

Editor: John Brockman

Publisher: Harper Perennial

Writing about new frontiers of discovery and strategies to solve the world’s problems, Pope Francis cuts through the complexity: "No branch of the sciences and no form of wisdom can be left out, and that includes religion and the language particular to it."

Edge.org is a website established in the same spirit. Its founder, polymath John Brockman, describes himself as an impresario of science and an enzyme to bridge science and the humanities into a "third culture" of imagination.

As an online discussion forum for elite, shape-shifting thinkers, Edge.org aims to spur leaps of creativity and foster interdisciplinary ideas that cut to the heart of the world’s challenges.

Concern: The book paints alarming scenarios including the implications of genome research and artificial intelligence.  Picture: SUPPLIED
Concern: The book paints alarming scenarios including the implications of genome research and artificial intelligence. Picture: SUPPLIED

Brockman poses an annual question to Edge members. The 2015 question was, "What do you consider the most interesting recent scientific news and what makes it important?"

Know This is a compilation of essay answers from 198 respondents, a smorgasbord of little-publicised, awe-inspiring — and sometimes awful — developments within diverse fields including medicine, climatology, artificial intelligence, biology and social sciences.

The smattering of contributions by artists and musicians provide time-outs from what is sometimes demanding reading.

Indeed, some subjects may be near-incomprehensible if one’s only understanding of string theory or the Standard Model of particle physics is from television sitcom the Big Bang Theory.

The essays are written peer-to-peer for Edge website participants, but presumably the book is intended for a wider audience; as editor, Brockman could have taken the trouble to introduce and frame key themes. And a glossary would have added much to facilitate the grasp of certain acutely specialised and complex topics.

Notwithstanding the more confounding commentaries focused on astrophysics, cosmology and quantum theory, Know This deserves perseverance. Most sections offer pithy explanations surrounding blow-me-away breakthroughs that rarely enter the realm of traditional media but represent, as curator and author Hans Ulrich Obrist puts it, the real news of the world.

What, exactly, is this news? From supernovas to supercomputers, glaciers to genomics, palaeontology to psychology, the highlights span a great breadth. The result is an amalgamation of the intrigue of journals such as Nature and Science, the cheeky provocation of Freakonomics and the intellectual weight of a fact-heavy textbook. The effect is sometimes wondrous, such as reports from the European Organisation for Nuclear Research (Cern) mega-facility near Geneva, where theoretical particle physicists using the Large Hadron Collider are confident they have proof of the Higgs boson. Colloquially called the "God particle" because its existence has been a 50-year article of faith in the scientific community, the discovery opens a door to a hitherto unknown world, and may unlock understanding of the deepest mysteries of matter.

These sorts of marvels are scattered throughout, but the book also has alarming disclosures. The convergence of technological leaps in genome research with the possibilities of artificial intelligence will inaugurate a future of bioinformatics — data-driven, but personalised, medicine. An individual’s biological blueprint will be analysed by expert systems that will be able to keep learning and shift into predictive mode.

We are witnessing the dawn of crystal-ball computers for human health — but the ramifications are not entirely benign. "A terrible beauty has been born," says life sciences Prof Randolph Nesse at Arizona State University, alluding to the CRISPR-Cas9 genome editing technology that enables revolutionary efficiencies in altering DNA — the real, physical ability to transform life itself.

The publishing lag means Know This essays do not mention even more recent information: that China has commenced a 15-year, $9bn research and investment programme in this field, effectively aiming to become a DNA-superpower.

Some correspondents give more tangible and immediate signposts of warning.

A computer scientist, Scott Aaronson, of the University of Texas, recognises that "news we find interesting depends on how widely we draw the circle around our own hobbyhorses. And some days, quantum computing seems to me to fade into irrelevance, next to the precarious state of the Earth."

The first 20 or so contributors cover the issue of climate change with various emphases; their pointers and conclusions — and facts that we need legislators and leaders to heed — can only be digested with discomfort. The response from Stuart Pimm, Duke University professor of conservation ecology, is astonishing precisely because it is not his: he admires the rigour, holism and forthrightness of a 2015 paper on the state of the globe’s ecology, On Care for Our Common Home, written by one JM Bergoglio. That is Pope Francis, and Pimm points out that the pontiff’s encyclical has a potential readership of 1.2-billion Catholics worldwide. This dwarfs the reach of mainstream media channels, and represents a ray of hope that the message will gain critical mass.

Its newsworthiness was heightened recently when the pope met US President Donald Trump and gave him a copy.

"Well, I’ll be reading [it]," Trump said, and almost simultaneously confirmed budget proposals that slash the US Environmental Protection Agency’s funding by a third, on top of deep cuts to allocations for scientific and medical research.

Writing a year before Trump’s election, Bruce Parker, professor of maritime systems at Stevens Institute of Technology, senses the rise of science scepticism. He sees the news as a dichotomy between useful scientific developments and the actions of irresponsible politicians who openly defy scientifically acquired insights.

This is the urgent context for Know This. Even as it distills humankind’s capacity for knowledge and unveils learnings of the workings of the universe — from billion-year megatrends to infinitesimal quantum mechanics — it juxtaposes this astonishing progress with humankind’s wilful ignorance about how our actions blight the planet.

The book deserves wider exposure than its bland cover and niche marketing is likely to achieve. It encapsulates a convincing case for mandatory science literacy and it should be prescribed reading for government cabinets, company boards, and teachers — anyone shaping policies, people’s attitudes, or prioritising and allocating funds for research and development.

As we understand more, it becomes ever clearer that we live in an incredible world. Much of this is made possible by science, and Know This proves there are still more miracles to come.

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