what the experts say

Kevin Horrigan | How to get the most out of your worrying time

January 30, 2013 

Edge.org is a website where really smart people write about subjects that make most people’s heads hurt. I check it out whenever I need to feel particularly stupid.

Each year, John Brockman, the literary agent who runs the Edge Foundation, invites a group of ridiculously brilliant people to write essays about a single subject, usually a scientific one. This year’s subject was suggested by the technology historian George Dyson: “What should we be worried about?”

Dyson’s premise: “[P]eople tend to worry too much about things that it doesn’t do any good to worry about, and not to worry enough about things we should be worrying about.”

This sounded good to me. My hobbies include worrying, moping and brooding. As I previously have confessed, I spend way too much time obsessing about grizzly bear attacks. I figured the Edge.com piece could help me spend my leisure hours more effectively.

I figured wrong.

First off, some 150 really smart people contributed things to worry about. Their essays ran to 168 printed pages. I got through maybe 50 of them before going catatonic.

One guy, John Tooby of the University of California-Santa Barbara, threw out an entire list: Gamma ray bursts of the type that occur from time to time in parts of the universe, wiping out any possibility of life. Impacts with supernovae or asteroids like those that hit Jupiter a couple of times a year. Super volcanic eruptions. “Coronal mass ejections” (super sunspots, I think) that not only destroy all electro-magnetic-based technology but the power grids necessary to repair it. A reversion by the sun to the normal instability found in G-type stars.

Tooby also warned about scientists who can’t support their hypotheses. He quoted the great physicist Richard Feynman, “Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts.”

Several pages later, another writer warned about skepticism of science.

Great. Which of these 150 smart people know what they’re talking about? Several warned about climate change. Others warned about the wrong response to climate change that might make things worse.

Some of the Edge.com experts were worried about the population explosion. Others worried about birth rates, suggesting that too few people is a bigger long-term worry than too many.

Geoffrey Miller of New York University warned that the Chinese, heretofore known for the quantity of their people, are now working on quality instead. Eugenics experiments are aimed at trying to breed a race of super-babies. Mengele would be proud.

The most ominous thing I read, and one I plan to focus my worries on, came from Seirian Sumner of England’s University of Bristol: synthetic biology.

“We are a stone’s throw away from re-creating extinct organisms,” Ms. Sumner writes. “The woolly mammoth genome was sequenced in 2008, and Japanese researchers are reputedly cloning it now, using extant elephant relatives as surrogate mothers.”

Why is this a good idea? Did they not show “Jurassic Park” in Japan?

“There are already attempts to re-create ancient ecosystems through the re-introduction of the descendants of extinct megafauna (e.g. Pleistocene Park in Russia), and synthetic woolly mammoths may complete the set,” she reports.

I looked up “megafauna.” It means “really big animals.” Then I looked up Pleistocene Park, which is real and located in a particularly desolate part of Siberia. Efforts there are under way to re-create an entire Pleistocene-era ecosystem.

The Pleistocene lasted roughly 2.5 million years, until it petered out about 12,000 years ago. It incorporated various ice ages and featured not just woolly mammoths, but all kinds of scary “apex predators” (those that could eat you).

Among them, “scimitar-toothed tigers” (sabers weren’t bad enough?), cave lions (25 percent bigger than regular lions) and worst of all, cave bears, of which there may have millions.

A cave bear is, for all intents and purposes, a Pleistocene grizzly bear. Wonderful – the Russians are developing a lovely ecosystem that might someday accommodate roving herds of grizzly bears, which could easily swim the Bering Strait, bypass Sarah Palin’s house, catch the Alaska Highway and be at my house in two or three weeks, tops.

It’s nice to know I haven’t been worrying needlessly.

Contact Horrigan, a columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, at khorrigan@post-dispatch.com.

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