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What Now?

In the weeks since the attacks of September 11, one thing has become clear -- terrorism is now a high-tech profession, whether it‘s mastering the controls of a jumbo jet or manufacturing weapons-grade anthrax spores. Some observers may find it curious then that President Bush seems more inclined to invite the visions of Hollywood producers and directors than scientists. This is not to say that the science community will go unheard. Just days after the attacks an editorial in the journal Nature noted that ”science itself will play a critical role in the identification of the victims and in the unprecedented intelligence and military steps that the United States and others will now take to prevent such attacks.“ And if the president does decide he is interested in what ”the most complex and sophisticated minds“ in the world are saying about 911 and beyond, he need only visit the online salon Edge.

The creation of literary agent John Brockman, Edge (www.edge.org) features a cross section of elite scientists, including evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, parallel computing pioneer Danny Hillis, language theorist and cognitive scientist Stephen Pinker, robotics expert Rodney Brook, chaos theory expert Doyne Farmer, and physicists Paul Davies, Freeman Dyson and Lee Smolin. A former associate of Andy Warhol, the flamboyant Brockman sensed early on the celebrity power of science. Warhol had the Factory, and Brockman, who was a frequent visitor in its latter years, has with his Edge site convened a kind of scientific equivalent, a ”place“ where those at the cutting edge of science and technology can meet to throw around their latest and wildest ideas. ”We are interested in ’thinking smart,‘“ declares Brockman on the site, ”we are not interested in the anesthesiology of ’wisdom.‘“ Putting the question ”What now?“ to his invite-only list, Brockman stressed that he wanted not more punditry, but ”hard-edged a comments, derived from empirical results.“

Over the past two decades one of the sexiest areas of science has been the new field of chaos and complexity, and not surprisingly several Edge participants take up this theme. In a piece that combines scientific insight with personal experience -- and which ought to be mandatory reading by the Bush administration -- chaos theory pioneer Doyne Farmer notes that with any such system ”there are two fundamentally different approaches to prediction and control.“ The first, which is essentially the approach being taken by the Pentagon, is to try to predict the detailed trajectory the system will take and then attempt to stop it from achieving that path.

For several decades Farmer has been studying systemic behavior in such chaotic systems as roulette wheels, turbulent fluids and stock markets. His conclusions make for sobering reading. ”If there is one thing I have learned in my 25 years of trying to predict [such] systems,“ he writes, ”it is this: It is really hard.“ Indeed, he continues, it is ”fundamentally impossible to do it well,“ especially when the system involves ”a large number of independent actors“ such as we are now facing with the al Qaeda network.

Farmer cautions that we should think very carefully not only about our fight against terrorism, but also about the so-called ”drug war.“ Believing that you can rationally predict, and hence control, such dispersed multivalent complexes is an illusion, he suggests. The only way forward is ”to change the system in a more fundamental way,“ that is, to ”change the parameters and get rid of the behavior you don’t want.“ In other words, the message from chaos theory is that to win the war on terrorism we must address the roots of anti-American sentiment.

Several Edge participants also consider the networked nature of our society and make proposals for improvement. Tor Norretranders, a Danish science writer and consultant, notes a parallel between the destruction of the World Trade Center and fears voiced by RAND Corporation specialist Paul Baran back in 1964. In a seminal paper credited with influencing the development of the Internet, Baran pointed out that the centralized nature of American communications systems made them extremely vulnerable to nuclear attack. Thus, Norretranders suggests, powerful institutions and corporations should also be decentralizing. Rather than placing their top people in a single building, why not distribute them across many locations? This was an idea also put forth by the cosmologist Freeman Dyson in his 1999 book The Sun, the Genome and the Internet. On the Edge, Dyson, of the prestigious Institute for Advanced Studies at Princeton, proposes that rather than building skyscrapers with 100,000 inhabitants -- more WTCs, as are now being planned in Southeast Asia -- we should ”reverse the flow of people from villages to megacities.“

Not all of the ideas put out on the Edge are quite so reality-based. Also noting the vulnerability of centralized systems, Dyson‘s son George, a maverick futurist, puts forward a radical revamping of the airline system. In place of the current hub-and-spokes model, he envisages a ”packet-switched“ network of pneumatic capsules traveling through systems of giant tubes, a la Futurama. Such an idea might currently sound like science fiction, but as he points out, the Internet only got going with a great deal of government support. Why ”throw good money after bad trying to bail out the airline industry?“ Dyson asks. Why not replace it with a completely new system that is intrinsically more efficient and less vulnerable to attack?

In spite of Brockman’s directives re hard-edged and empirically based commentary, many Edge respondents have reverted to what Brockman calls ”op-ed mode.“ By phone from New York he tells me: ”I give them marching orders, but they don‘t always listen.“ Scientists are indeed a group not generally inclined to follow directions. And fortunately so, for some of the most interesting responses have been of the personal variety.

Among them is a moving posting by Dyson senior. Recalling his boyhood in London, Dyson recounts how during the Blitz he lay in bed rejoicing in ”the delicious sound of buildings falling down.“ To the budding physicist and ardent anti-colonialist he then was, the imminent danger to his own person was nothing compared to the joy of hearing the ”great British Empire audibly crumbling.“ In one of the more frank commentaries I have read on the attacks anywhere, Dyson tells us that he can easily ”imagine the state of mind of the young men who so resolutely smashed those planes into the buildings. Almost I could have been one of them myself.“

Unlike most pundits, Dyson admits that he does not pretend to know how to solve the problems we now face from terrorist attacks. But if he does not know the solution, his own experiences as a disenchanted youth suggest to him that the nature of the problem is not essentially military; it is, rather, ”a problem of people’s hearts and minds.“ Such personal reflections may be a tad naive and, as Tor Norretranders acknowledges, they ”do not confront the legitimate need for immediate revenge.“ Yet in an era of nuclear, chemical and now biological weapons, Norretranders reminds us that understanding the ”enemy“ may be our only option. We may have to accept, he says, what Danish poet Piet Hein summed up as the condition of the nuclear age: Co-existence or no existence.


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