Thursday, February 09, 2006

Dangerous Ideas!!!

A very interesting site named ‘Edge’ ( purportedly brings together people working at the edge of a broad range of scientific and technical fields, and has them ask each other questions they are asking themselves. One of the traditions of this site is to pose a question every year that makes some of the best thinkers in the world to come out with clear unambiguous answers. Considering that the questions are asked by none other than John Brockman (The founder of the site and the author of such books as The Third Culture: Beyond the Scientific Revolution, The New Humanists: Science at the Edge, and What We Believe but Cannot Prove: Today's Leading Thinkers on Science in the Age of Certainty.), the answers tend to be interesting and thought-worthy to say the least.

This year John asked contributors for "dangerous ideas". "The history of science is replete with discoveries that were considered socially, morally, or emotionally dangerous in their time; the Copernican and Darwinian revolutions are the most obvious," he writes. "What is your dangerous idea? An idea you think about (not necessarily one you originated) that is dangerous not because it is assumed to be false, but because it might be true?"

Now I would suggest you to take a moment or two off and write three ideas you think as belonging to this category before proceeding further. (After all, who does not want to test his/her wits against people who matter?!.)

I have found many of the ideas interesting and some of them really scary; As John puts it, “scary not because it is not like to come true but because they are very likely to come true”.

Here are some examples:

  • Karl Sabbagh (Writer and Television Producer; Author, The Riemann Hypothesis) deals with the capability of human brain in his dangerous idea. He states ‘The human brain and its products are incapable of understanding the truths about the universe’. The hypothesis by itself seems fairly simple though not very pleasant. If you really look at the evolution of theoretical Physics investigating various forces in nature from Newton’s days to String Theory, you might find a sound example of our inability to understand and explain the ways of nature. Every time you think you have covered all aspects in the theory, a new dimension opens up and you realize that you are not even back to square one. But I am not yet ready to give in to Karl’s hypothesis. A controversial book published couple of years ago by the Steven Wolfram named ‘A New Kind of Science’ tries to provide a totally different approach to explaining universal laws (I will write about this book in one of the issues in the near future). Though I am not bought on Wolfram’s approaches, it gives me confidence that some day somebody will conceive a method/approach to comprehend the universe and our brain is pretty much up to it.
  • Rupert Sheldrake (Biologist, London; Author of The Presence of the Past) hypothesises that humanity might invent a sense of direction involving new scientific principles. At the outset I thought this could be one of those spooky Paranormal Kinetics stuff. But once you read through some of the stuff Rupert has written, you would agree with me that there is meat in the argument. Here are some extracts:
…No one knows how pigeons home, or how swallow migrate, or how green turtles find Ascension Island from thousands of miles away to lay their eggs. These kinds of navigation involve more than following familiar landmarks, or orientating in a particular compass direction; they involve an ability to move towards a goal…
…there is a dangerous possibility that animal navigation may not be explicable in terms of present-day physics. Over and above the known senses, some species of animals may have a sense of direction that depends on their being attracted towards their goals through direct field-like connections…
…cannot explain how racing pigeons return across unfamiliar terrain from six hundred miles away, even flying over the sea, as English pigeons do when they are raced from Spain…

Well doesn’t that sounds like a real idea?
  • V.S. Ramachandran (Neuroscientist; Director, Center for Brain and Cognition, University of California, San Diego; Author, A Brief Tour of Human Consciousness) expands on Francis Crick’s "astonishing hypothesis" — ‘that even our loftiest thoughts and aspirations are mere by-products of neural activity. We are nothing but a pack of neurons’. Throw in the famous Sherlock Homes assertion ‘I am a brain, my dear Watson, and the rest of me is a mere appendage’, and you have to very well agree with Ramachandran that the whole idea definitely deflates Homosapien’s misplaced confidence on his superior place among living beings.
There are about hundred similar entries on the site, some extremely thought provoking and some not so. If I have succeeded in sufficiently whetting your appetite, please send me your thoughts by writing to .