“Is what you’re doing going to change the world?” asked Larry Page, Google’s co-founder. “If not, maybe you should do something else.”
I was at the annual Sci Foo Camp hosted by Nature Publishing Group (Scientific American’s parent), the O’Reilly Media Group and Google on its Mountain View, Calif., campus. At this “unconference,” attendees—scientists and those with connections to science—created sessions on the spot, making for an energizing and freewheeling exchange over a weekend. But I have found myself reflecting most often on Page’s words since.
Scientific American itself regularly features advances that can shape our future for the better, and we focus on a select list in the cover story, our second annual “World Changing Ideas.” Among the 10 innovations are veggie-eating robots that produce electricity, a DNA transistor and bioinspired algorithms. In fact, threading through the section are two themes: managing information and benefiting from the use of biological models.
While I’m writing, I’d like to propose two more potential world changers. First, what if we stopped feeling frozen by uncertainties associated with climate change and—at least for starters—simply began applying good resources management within existing human experience? Water managers have to plan anyway for year-to-year variations—the 10-year flood, the 100-year drought, and so on—and it is not insurmountable to factor in additional adaptability when making infrastructure adjustments. I didn’t make that up: I learned that lesson while moderating a panel of expert water managers during an all-day symposium on “The Climate Challenge” held by the Earth Institute’s Columbia Climate Center and the Danish Consulate General. (Watch the panel video at www.earth.columbia.edu/videos/watch/260.)
And here’s another way to improve at least our corner of the world: What if U.S. culture finally started admiring and participating in science as an engine of our modern prosperity, instead of holding it on a pedestal apart? Scientific American recently served as a sponsor for the first national U.S. Science & Engineering Festival in Washington, D.C., and we’ve been media partners with the World Science Festival in New York City and others in the past. What if parents took kids to such festivals and museums as often as they went to ballgames or concerts? Maybe ultimately we could stop bemoaning the drop in science and math scores by U.S. students and our loss in global competitiveness, because we’d all appreciate those topics as much as we do fine literature, art and the latest action movie. I’d like to see us, in the near future, facing our problems by saying: “We’ll have to science that.”