Reviews

Published: Tuesday June 10, 2014 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Updated: Tuesday June 10, 2014 MYT 8:48:25 AM

What Should We Be Worried About?

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  • Author : John Brockman
  • Genre : non-fiction
  • Publisher : Harper Perennial

Review

Bite-sized science

Covering topics ranging from the likelihood of alien invasion to the state of scientific publishing, over 150 scientists and thinkers share real-life scenarios that keep them up at night.

What Should We Be Worried About?

Edited by: John Brockman>Edited by: John Brockman

Publisher: Harper Perennial, 478 pages, non-fiction


SO, what keeps you up at night? Aside from caffeine, babies, work, books or electronic gadgets, of course.

What do you worry about?

Most people tend to worry about things that directly affect them; things like health, career, family, finances, etc.

Some people also worry about the bigger picture; things like the current socioeconomic climate in our country, the disadvantaged, the environment, truth, social justice, and so on.

This book assuredly focuses on the bigger picture, with answers to the question “What should we be worried about?” coming mainly from respected scientists and thinkers, as well as the occasional creative artist-type and journalist.

With 153 contributors, the subjects these essayists worry about (or not) cover a diverse range of topics. However, they can be roughly categorised into the themes of technology, humanity, growth (or the lack of), science in general, theoretical physics, as well as medicine and genetics.

Some contributors, perhaps a bit tongue-in-cheek, even address the issue of worrying itself.

Similarly-themed essays are generally grouped together, so that readers get different perspectives on the same issue.

For example, theoretical physicist Antony Garrett Lisi writes about his worry that the human propensity to lie to themselves about their mortality is causing a lack of funding for curing ageing, which he believes is scientifically probable.

The essay immediately following his is written by University College London, Research Department of Cognitive, Perceptual and Brain Sciences head Prof Kate Jeffery. Prof Jeffery, in contrast to Lisi, writes that “... research into ageing and life span is a funding priority in every wealthy, technologically advanced society.” And she worries about the potential loss of natural death, and the consequences that could hold for humanity and our planet.

Whose worry is more legitimate? Well, that’s for you to decide.

The point (the opposite of which I worry many Malaysian readers might conclude) is not to just blindly absorb everything these writers say, but to take in their opinions and critically consider them.

For me, this book functions best as an eye-opener on subjects that we might not have previously thought about.

For example, British academic Dylan Evans worries that the spread and embrace of democracy, which has its own flaws, is preventing us from evolving a better political system.

And computer scientist and physicist W. Daniel Hillis is concerned about the assumptions behind the type of information Internet search engines provide us. With Google incorporating semantics alongside the traditional keyword search, this means that the search engine is now assigning meaning to the words we are searching for. And in a world where one person’s freedom fighter might be another’s terrorist, the worry is that computer programs may now be deciding what words mean for us and providing us information according to that judgement.

While some contributors do descend into technical jargon at points, most of the writing is clear and understandable to the non-expert.

The essays range from one to five pages, making them easy and quick to read – quite handy when, say, you are on the toilet or waiting for something.

In fact, my personal favourite is a two-sentence gem from Monty Python troupe member and British director and screenwriter Terry Gilliam: “I’ve given up on worrying. I merely float on a tsunami of acceptance of anything life throws at me ... and marvel stupidly.”

Readers can also leave off and pick up the book again at any time, as the essays can be read individually.

Recommended for those who want an accessible, intellectual read on a wide range of science-related topics, both popular and more esoteric.

Also, good material for those who might want to impress others in social settings with their “smartness”.

Tags / Keywords: book review, What Should We Be Worried About, tan shiow chin, john brockman

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