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Editorial Science

Share Your Most Dangerous Idea 1060

Posted by ScuttleMonkey
from the shhh-it's-too-dangerous-to-talk-about-here dept.
GabrielF writes "Every year The Edge asks over 100 top scientists and thinkers a question, and the responses are fascinating and widely quoted. This year, psychologist Steven Pinker suggested they ask "What is your most dangerous idea?" The 117 respondents include Richard Dawkins, Freeman Dyson, Daniel Dennett, Jared Diamond -- and that's just the D's! As you might expect, the submissions are brilliant and very controversial."
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Share Your Most Dangerous Idea

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  • by tcd004 (134130) * on Tuesday January 03, 2006 @11:32PM (#14389785) Homepage
    This is very simliar to this piece from Foreign Policy Magazine in September of 2004 "The World's Most Dangerous Ideas" [foreignpolicy.com] tcd004
  • by rev_sanchez (691443) on Tuesday January 03, 2006 @11:35PM (#14389793)
    1. Shaving my back with rubbing alcohol and fire+.
    2. Testing for the presence of pheromones in ball sweat by putting my hand down my pants, cupping my balls, and holding my hand over my sleeping girlfriend's face while she slept.*

    + I was going to do this while in the shower with the water running off to the side so I could hop into the water in the event of the inevitable accident
    * Danger: She's a biter thus the reluctance to tea bag her directly
  • evolution of evil (Score:5, Interesting)

    by ee_moss (635165) on Tuesday January 03, 2006 @11:36PM (#14389799)
    I found David Buss's [edge.org] article interesting. He sums up with the following, "On reflection, the dangerous idea may not be that murder historically has been advantageous to the reproductive success of killers; nor that we all house homicidal circuits within our brains; nor even that all of us are lineal descendants of ancestors who murdered. The danger comes from people who refuse to recognize that there are dark sides of human nature that cannot be wished away by attributing them to the modern ills of culture, poverty, pathology, or exposure to media violence. The danger comes from failing to gaze into the mirror and come to grips the capacity for evil in all of us."
    • Re:evolution of evil (Score:4, Informative)

      by TimBrady (194951) <timothy.brady@aya.y a l e.edu> on Wednesday January 04, 2006 @01:29AM (#14390214)
      Buss, and his not-excellently-supported-by-empirical-evidence rhetoric are discussed on Mixing Memory [blogspot.com], along with the answers of the major cognitive sciencists. Worth a read if you are interested in the study of the mind, and how many of these answers relate to that.
    • by mochan_s (536939) on Wednesday January 04, 2006 @05:10AM (#14390875)
      I found David Buss's [edge.org] article interesting. He sums up with the following, "On reflection, the dangerous idea may not be that murder historically has been advantageous to the reproductive success of killers; nor that we all house homicidal circuits within our brains; nor even that all of us are lineal descendants of ancestors who murdered. The danger comes from people who refuse to recognize that there are dark sides of human nature that cannot be wished away by attributing them to the modern ills of culture, poverty, pathology, or exposure to media violence. The danger comes from failing to gaze into the mirror and come to grips the capacity for evil in all of us."

      I disagree. First of all, if you want to use evolutionary theory then you have to take into fact that humans didn't live in huge cities like we do now. We lived in small collections of hunters/gatherers. You kill someone in your own group, then you get ostracized from the group which will lead to certain no-mating.

      Second, murder of another competing group would be good and you'd be considered a hero in your group. Then you'd get more reproductive success if you're a hero.

      So, murder is bad but a battlefield kill is good. We hate murderers but love war heros. Anyway, that's my view. So, just murdering someone in cold blood is hard but killing in a battlefield isn't as much.

  • 72,500 words!!! (Score:5, Informative)

    by QuantumG (50515) <qg@biodome.org> on Tuesday January 03, 2006 @11:38PM (#14389807) Homepage Journal
    This has to be the biggest "article" submitted to Slashdot ever.

    Here's my idea: If you have a Bose-Einstein condensate of heavy atoms, why happens when they radioactively decay? Does every atom decay simultaniously? Wouldn't that be kinda like a bomb?

    • No (Score:5, Interesting)

      by jd (1658) <imipak@nOSPam.yahoo.com> on Wednesday January 04, 2006 @12:19AM (#14389967) Homepage Journal
      The neutrons would be emitted as though from a point source (which a BEC is) and would therefore not hit anything for a chain reaction to occur.


      Now, there MAY be a way to use a BEC more destructively. If you have a BEC that consists of pure deuterium, use magnetic containment to prevent the BEC from expanding back out at all, raise the temperature as close to instantaneously as possible to the point where fusion can occur...


      The BEC obviously can't remain a BEC at superhigh temperatures, so must unfold to some degree. The structure is guaranteed to move to the lowest possible energy state, because that is what atomic structures do. This is part of why it would be important to raise the temperature rapidly. You want it so that there simply is no valid state with deuterium nucleii.


      If deuterium is simply not an option, the nucleii will fuse. They have no alternative. Here is where it gets fun, though. If the energies are high enough and the compression great enough, you can produce elements as far up the periodic table as you like. Unlike normal particle accelerator efforts to produce super-massive atoms, these will actually last for a while - there won't be room for them to fall apart.


      The difficulty in producing the correct conditions would be enormous, but if you could crack that nut, there'd be no theoretical reason why you couldn't push for a nucleus with an atomic mass of a thousand or so.


      The energy to produce such a monster atom would be guaranteed much greater than ALL of the energy output by the fusion reactions. (Iron takes more energy to fuse than it gives out and we're talking something a couple of orders of magnitude larger.) Sustaining it might even be worse.


      The fun part, though, will be in letting it collapse after a time. A very substantial part of the energy put into the fusion of the nucleii would be released in a matter of microseconds over an extremely small space. Current physics predicts that if you exceed a certain energy density, space will "inflate". This might cause the whole of space/time to explode, it might form a pocket universe, or it might do all sorts of other strange things. Nobody knows much about energy densities of that magnitude.

      • Re:No (Score:5, Funny)

        by DrEldarion (114072) on Wednesday January 04, 2006 @12:27AM (#14390001)
        This might cause the whole of space/time to explode, it might form a pocket universe, or it might do all sorts of other strange things.

        Okay, I definitely nominate this for the most dangerous idea.

      • Re:No (Score:3, Interesting)

        by PlusFiveTroll (754249)
        Interrestingly enough, to tie this back in to religion, The Tree of Knowledge could be death.

        Over the billions of years the universe has existed, thousands of alien cultures have evolved just like ours, only to have there planet blipped out of existance by an accidential scientific discovery.

        If such a case possible then any "advanced" society is constantly on the brink of destruction, by attempting to control higher and higher energies. We may think nuclear weapons are dangerous (and they are), an alien kid
      • Re:No (Score:4, Interesting)

        by ceoyoyo (59147) on Wednesday January 04, 2006 @03:46AM (#14390630)
        I think the idea was that since all the atoms in the BEC are in the same state, if one decays, do they all decay, simultaneously? Not because of a chain reaction, but because they are all in an identical state so why should one decay and not the rest. Then instead of having a chunk of, say, uranium release energy over a few billion years, all the energy is released at precisely the same time.
    • Re:72,500 words!!! (Score:4, Informative)

      by Muerte23 (178626) on Wednesday January 04, 2006 @12:52AM (#14390089) Journal
      Most BECs are smaller than 100 million atoms. That many atoms undergoing fission at once (even if possible) would only emit a tiny amount of energy. BEC is also *very* dilute. About 10^14 particles per cubic centimeter. Thus the absorption cross section for a neutron emitted from within the cloud is negligible. It's pretty much impossible to make bigger BECs because of limitations due to bad collisions (spin mixing) at high densities and cooling rates.

      And the other poster's comments about "heating it up really quick" is pretty much wrong, as far as I can tell.

      I work with BEC, and there's no way it could be used as a weapon.

      But your question about nuclear decay from a group wavefunction is pretty interesting, but the nuclei should behave independently. When a BEC scatters a photon, for instance, a single atom is rejected.

      m .this is not a sig
  • by winkydink (650484) * <sv.dude@gmail.com> on Tuesday January 03, 2006 @11:43PM (#14389822) Homepage Journal
    "Hold my beer and watch this".
    "Better light a match to see where that gas is coming from."
    "Yeah honey, you do look kind of fat in that dress."
  • by creimer (824291) on Tuesday January 03, 2006 @11:44PM (#14389828) Homepage
    Reading Slashdot every day is pretty dangerous as far as ideas go. Never know when you're going to read something insightful, scream "Eureka!" and your head explodes like a nasty toliet.
  • Longest FA ever. (Score:4, Insightful)

    by i_should_be_working (720372) on Tuesday January 03, 2006 @11:47PM (#14389843)
    Most of these don't seem really dangerous, just some ideas of what might come or be accepted in the future. Ideas that some iconoclasts already accepted but the masses have not. Like the idea of humans having no souls.

    The ones that are dangerous are not dangerous in the "omg someone could kill millions with this idea" way. They are dangerous in the "our society will be even more effed up if this idea catches on" way. Like the idea that we can't win the war on climate change. If everyone accepted this how many countries would even try to reduce emissions? Or the idea that there really are fundamental differences between the "races". That would make the next genocide just a little bit easier.
  • Melting (Score:4, Insightful)

    by IvyMike (178408) on Tuesday January 03, 2006 @11:48PM (#14389845)
    This is funny, but I'm also totally serious:

    Several times in my life, I've thought that I might be able to fix a broken object by using the process of melting. No matter how right I thought I was when I started, I've always, ALWAYS, regretted the idea.

    Even knowing this, I'll probably try it again.
  • by NoData (9132) <_NoData_@@@yahoo...com> on Tuesday January 03, 2006 @11:48PM (#14389846)
    Dan Gilbert is a bit of a hero of mine. His research basically is about happiness--it's all any of us really, universally, want, so why, after millions of years of evolution, are we so bad at finding it? We should be experts! His stuff on affective forecasting and rationalization is amazing. I highly recommend his papers--and hearing him talk, if you ever have the opportunity, even more so! Anyway, he's a REAL character, and his response betrays that:


    DANIEL GILBERT
    Psychologist, Harvard University

    The idea that ideas can be dangerous

    Dangerous does not mean exciting or bold. It means likely to cause great harm. The most dangerous idea is the only dangerous idea: The idea that ideas can be dangerous.

    We live in a world in which people are beheaded, imprisoned, demoted, and censured simply because they have opened their mouths, flapped their lips, and vibrated some air. Yes, those vibrations can make us feel sad or stupid or alienated. Tough shit. That's the price of admission to the marketplace of ideas. Hateful, blasphemous, prejudiced, vulgar, rude, or ignorant remarks are the music of a free society, and the relentless patter of idiots is how we know we're in one. When all the words in our public conversation are fair, good, and true, it's time to make a run for the fence.



    Well, Dan, have you read Slashdot lately? I think we're still all right. For now.
  • by millennial (830897) on Tuesday January 03, 2006 @11:49PM (#14389849) Journal
    Intelligent Design. Sorry, I had to.
  • by MustardMan (52102) on Tuesday January 03, 2006 @11:55PM (#14389873)
    This thing seems like a few gems from genuinely insightful people, and a whole lot of buzzword babble junk. My personal favorite so far is the "headaches are like a spoon" drivel that says we should abandon the idea of physical objects and that everything we think we know is just our brain's interpretation, and there's no reason for that interpretation to match reality in any way. Only problem is - the reality of a wolf ripping out my throat is a pretty good reason to evolve senses that give me a good picture of that reality. I swear, the matrix gave this crap a whole new motivation - and it makes me wanna barf.
  • mind control (Score:5, Insightful)

    by nephridium (928664) on Tuesday January 03, 2006 @11:55PM (#14389876)
    How about inventing a device to put into everybody's house (at least in the living room, maybe even the bed room) that, through some kind of electro-magnetic radiation or something, makes them more tranquil and less critical so it is easier to rule over them. Just think of the opportunities of such sort of devices - you could teach an entire population what (or who) is "good" or "bad" and you can pull off just about anything without the fear of being held responsible for your actions.

    I shall call it "thought vehicle" or short TV. - Sounds good too.. I should patent this idea.

    • It's called "fluoride," and not only does it make your tooth enamel nice and firm, but it is also a neurotoxin. It helps people become docile and consentful.

      People say that fluoride is "not lethal in small doses" - of course it isn't lethal in 1 or 4 ppm, but that's not the point: it still effects you, especially as the fluoride builds up in your body over time.

      Unfortunately, fluoride in drinking water (common in the United States) is only one tiny part of your daily exposure - almost any product processed
    • Re:mind control (Score:3, Informative)

      by whorfin (686885)
      Sorry, HG Wells beat you to this invention by about 110 years. Yes, back in the 1890s he postulated a Babble Machine in When The Sleeper Wakes
      http://www.gutenberg.org/catalog/world/readfile?fk _files=37759&pageno=86 [gutenberg.org]

      However, I'm certain that this would not prove sufficient prior art in today's patent climate.

      I highly recommend this book, as an amazing glimpse into the prescience of this man's predictions about the kinds of technologies and conveniences we would have in his future, and our today, and how
  • by Associate (317603) on Tuesday January 03, 2006 @11:58PM (#14389888) Homepage
    My most dangerous idea:
    Teach people to think for themselves.
  • by PhunkySchtuff (208108) <{ua.moc.acitamotua} {ta} {iak}> on Wednesday January 04, 2006 @12:06AM (#14389923) Homepage
    Well, I'm really busy at the moment, but maybe I'll just check slashdot one more time, just for a quick breather... I'm sure I won't be surfing for too long and will get straight back to work as soon as I've caught up on the news...
  • by crazyphilman (609923) on Wednesday January 04, 2006 @12:13AM (#14389949) Journal
    Think about it. Everyone's pissing and moaning about the coming oil shortages, and so on, and NOBODY is thinking about how conveniently flammable alcohol is.

    We have an entire Midwest full of Great Plains which are very well suited to growing grains which could produce alcohol.

    It has been demonstrated that you can run a car on alcohol. Dragsters do it all the time.

    It has been demonstrated that a fuel cell can generate electricity from methanol.

    Alcohol doesn't poison the environment if you spill some. It burns clean if you have a darwinian-selection moment and light it up. And in a pinch, you can drink it. Try THAT with petroleum.

    Well? Wouldn't an alcohol economy be easier than a hydrogen one?

    Just a thought...

    • by DECS (891519) on Wednesday January 04, 2006 @01:13AM (#14390157) Homepage Journal
      A quick Google search will confirm that you're not the only one who's thought of burning alcohol as a fuel.

      Replacing oil with alcohol would not solve our problems.

      Sure, it would invest in agriculture rather than exploiting technology to find, extract and refine crude oil. But It would replace the known problems associated with enriching arab states with a history of bad civil rights, with some unknown problems related to a huge mega-farm raising a monoculture crop. Pesticides, GMO, soil depletion are issues we know would be involved, but what else is involved with monobreed farming on that scale?

      There's also the problem that American bio-energy fuel production could only generate a 10th of the fuel supply that the USA currently uses - and that's only gasoline. There are lots of products we get from crude oil that we can't press out of biomass: think about plastics, asphalt, lubricants.

      Then there's the issue of what we're fueling in the first place: the realized dream of cheap fuel for vehicle freedom has resulted in a transportation engineering crisis that requires moving around and storing enormous cars rather than people. That creates sprawl that eats up farmland so we can have a parking lot around WalMart and sprawling acres of land devoted to roadways, driveways and freeways to link far flung suburban housing developments and equally sprawling office parks, and the previously mentioned WalMarts. Not to mention vehicle's polluting of the the environment.

      And yes you can drink alcohol, but not the 85% Ethanol/15% Gasoline mix we create for cars. It also is only about 30% cleaner than burning raw gasoline, so you might not want to light up indoors. It's also significantly more expensive, even if you ignore the farming subsidies that artificially cheapen it.

      Sometimes the simplest solution is also the least well thought out.

      I would suggest determining the real problems before offering a solution. A nation designed around cars instead of people is definitely part of the problem, and alternative fuel doesn't solve that particular problem at all.
    • Nuclear Economy (Score:5, Interesting)

      by Mr. Flibble (12943) on Wednesday January 04, 2006 @01:16AM (#14390178) Homepage
      Here is an even more dangerous idea.

      Forgo alcohol/biodiesel.

      Switch to a large number of Pebble Bed Nuclear Reactors [wikipedia.org] like China is doing, and use this energy to run run cars on Hydrogen or electricity.

      Believe it or not, Nuclear power is actually CLEANER ounce per ounce than most other energy methods (Try comparing it to coal, for example, which is still currently used, or many other things.) However, most people are scared of it, because they dont understand it.

      For those about to reply OMG! Nuclear power ZOMG!!!111!!11One!!! You should perhaps read the wikipedia article.
      • Re:Nuclear Economy (Score:3, Interesting)

        by egarland (120202)
        I never understood the whole pebble bed concept. Why scatter tons of potentially deadly, potentially world-destroying nuclear fuel through densely populated areas?

        I'm all for nuclear power but, please, make giant super-sites with 20 huge reactors far from population centers that can be efficiently secured and guarded and where economies of scale can allow maintainance and monitoring to be top-notch and yet still cost less. And build an airforce base next to it (or it next to a base) to provide full milita
    • Why not grow corn, eat the corn, and then ride your bike.

      It's easier then an Alcohol OR a Hydrogen economy.
    • It takes more BTUs to distill corn into ethanol than you get out of the resulting ethanol.
  • My idea (Score:4, Funny)

    by $RANDOMLUSER (804576) on Wednesday January 04, 2006 @12:16AM (#14389955)
    I was thinking of installing the latest Longhorn beta, or playing Russian roulette with an automatic - haven't decided yet.
  • yea us? (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Heem (448667) on Wednesday January 04, 2006 @12:23AM (#14389989) Homepage Journal
    KAI KRAUSE [edge.org]

    "The relative innocence and stable period of the last 50 years may spiral into a nearly inevitable exposure to real chaos. What if it isn't haphazard testosterone driven riots, where they cannibalize their own neighborhood, much like in L.A. in the 80s, but someone with real insight behind that criminal energy ? What if Slashdotters start musing aloud about "Gee, the L.A. water supply is rather simplistic, isn't it?" An Open Source crime web, a Wiki for real WTO opposition ? Hacking L.A. may be a lot easier than hacking IE."
  • by saskboy (600063) on Wednesday January 04, 2006 @12:27AM (#14390004) Homepage Journal
    My ideas that are most dangerous to human life on earth are to invent the transporter, and also warp speed, or impulse spacecraft. Just one spaceship the size of Enterprise A tearing through the Earth at Warp 1 would in theory destroy the earth into a cloud of planet vapour. Transporters would be used to rob every bank devised, and kidnap world leaders. Everyone would have to have a transporter inhibitor, or you'd be kidnapped almost right away, and probably not by aliens, but by the Swords of Righteousness Brigade or their ilk in Iraq.
  • ooh, ooh! pick me! (Score:5, Insightful)

    by circletimessquare (444983) <circletimessquar ... m minus language> on Wednesday January 04, 2006 @12:28AM (#14390010) Homepage Journal
    my dangerous idea:

    the internet has replaced the encyclopedia

    it is replacing want ads, real estate agents, auctions, music companies, publishers, etc.

    it will someday replace government

    but hold on, there's a catch:

    if the internet does this, it will do it the same way it is defeating the music industry: not through any conscience effort, but just a gradual, inevitable, unfightable erosion of relevancy by little efforts made by individuals not even consciously trying to do anything coherent

    in other words, if you are actively seeking to defeat government and promote anarchy/ libertarianism/ revolution, or whatever, you are way off

    because you are making a conscience effort

    because if and when it happens, no one will notice it starting

    just like the guys who built the original arpanet in the 1960s didn't say "hey! let's build a radically superior music distribution model that cuts out the middle man and removes the economic incentive!"

    except that's exactly what they did
  • by CharonIDRONES (656891) on Wednesday January 04, 2006 @12:33AM (#14390022)
    Sharks with frickin' laser beams attached to their heads!

    Sorry, couldn't help myself

    -Brandon
  • Hmm... (Score:5, Funny)

    by Dirtside (91468) on Wednesday January 04, 2006 @12:34AM (#14390029) Journal
    Every year The Edge asks over 100 top scientists and thinkers a question, and the responses are fascinating and widely quoted.
    I guess he got sick of Bono getting "Man of the Year" and such. Somewhat of a 180 from his previous stance [theonion.com].
  • by Clover_Kicker (20761) <clover_kicker@yahoo.com> on Wednesday January 04, 2006 @01:06AM (#14390132)
    This isn't my idea, can't remember where I saw it.

    Suppose a virus grepped your Outlook/Outlook Express address book for people's names. Then it grepped all the emails/documents/spreadsheets/whatever on all drives it could reach for those names.

    Once it found a document with someone's name, it emails that document to them.

    Imagine the chaos as confidential HR memos, payroll spreadsheets, legal documents, and just plain gossip are indiscriminately sent out.
  • by rheotaxis (528103) on Wednesday January 04, 2006 @01:31AM (#14390220) Homepage
    Our ideas may not matter much after all, as suggested by John Allen Paulos [edge.org]. His idea is short, sweet, and simple: we are not much more than "nominal, marginally integrated entities having convenient labels." Combine this with the anti-anthropocentric ideas of Irene Pepperberg [edge.org], the pan-psychism of Rudy Rucker [edge.org], and the eco-dynamics of Scott Sampson [edge.org], along with the nuclear doubts raised by Jeremy Bernstein [edge.org], and it all seems to make sense after all. We build thermo-nuclear devices becuase we need to help Gaia redistribute excess energy, not because we need the weapons for war. So, this dangerous idea implies no matter what our governments do with the stockpile of weapons grade plutonium, its not going to have much impact off-world.
  • by graveyhead (210996) <(ten.scinorthctelf) (ta) (hctelf)> on Wednesday January 04, 2006 @02:07AM (#14390340)
    I'd like to take issue with an idea that I caught glimpses of in the earliest authors and then one man thrust the problem into the spotlight:
    ARNOLD TREHUB
    Psychologist, University of Massachusetts, Amherst; Author, The Cognitive Brain

    Modern science is a product of biology

    The entire conceptual edifice of modern science is a product of biology. Even the most basic and profound ideas of science -- think relativity, quantum theory, the theory of evolution -- are generated and necessarily limited by the particular capacities of our human biology. This implies that the content and scope of scientific knowledge is not open-ended.

    Wow. Only a psychologist would come up with an idea like this. It's clearly a straw-man argument. The simpler version we've all heard for years: if a tree falls in the forest and noone is around to hear it, does it make a sound? The answer is of course it does. The weight of the tree crashing against the ground via the force of gravity sends a shockwave through the air. Whether or not a person is in range of the shockwave is completely irrelevant.

    This is the highest form of hubris: it takes people/intelligence for quantifications to have meaning. Bullshit.

    Take a universe exactly like ours in every respect with the very minor alteration that life never got started on earth. Well guess what? It still takes a minimum threshold of matter to condense and form a burning star. The label we've given to that threshold is nothing; a mere convienience. The real important fact is that matter *can* condense into a burning star, and it will do so even if there's no humans around to pontificate.

    End rant.
    • by mrsteele (246533) on Wednesday January 04, 2006 @12:49PM (#14393416)
      How did this get modded up? Did you even read the quote you posted?

      He doesn't claim that the universe requires human interaction or observation. He's simply claiming that since humans have limited faculties, the content and scope of human understanding and knowledge is limited. In other words, there may very well be things about the universe that we will never be able to understand. It's an interesting conjecture, although I'm not sure how much I agree with it, since humans are able to aid themselves in their investigations with technology.
  • by Council (514577) <rmunroe.gmail@com> on Wednesday January 04, 2006 @02:14AM (#14390365) Homepage
    Religious fundamentalism?
  • by SmallFurryCreature (593017) on Wednesday January 04, 2006 @03:45AM (#14390627) Journal
    Everything since then is downhill.

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