[EAS] Happy Holidays!

Peter J. Kindlmann pjk at design.eng.yale.edu
Mon Dec 24 17:25:19 EST 2007

Dear Friends and Colleagues -

In a tradition that goes back to 1996, the online salon 
<http://www.edge.org/>Edge has e-mailed at the beginning of the year 
a question to scientists and thinkers about the state of the world. 
The question for 2007 was: "What are you optimistic about?"

I'm mailing you below a response (a slightly abbreviated version, 
quoted in an L.A. Times op ed piece) by 
<http://www9.georgetown.edu/faculty/jod/>James O'Donnell, one of my 
early polestars for how to use the Web in academia. He is now Provost 
of Georgetown U.

Although a year old, his response best reflects my mood at this 
holiday season. (For the 2007 responses by all contributors, go to 

At a time when science seems to be becoming one of several 
alternative belief systems, and one where participation means 
disproportionately harder work, it's nice to have such an affirmation 
from a classicist:

>By James O'Donnell
>History repeats itself. The same stupidities, the same vengeances, 
>the same brutalities are mindlessly reinvented over and over. The 
>study of history can help the educated and the wise avoid the 
>mistakes of the past, but alas, it does nothing for helping the 
>But the study of the past and its follies and failures reveals one 
>surprising ground for optimism. In the long run, the idiots are 
>overthrown, or at least they die. On the other hand, creativity and 
>achievement are unique, exciting, liberating - and abiding. The 
>discoveries of scientists, the inventions of engineers, the advances 
>in the civility of human behavior are surprisingly durable. They may 
>be thwarted or attacked, and at any given moment it may seem that, 
>say, the cause of women's rights is beleaguered in too many places 
>in the world. But the idea of women's equality with men is not going 
>away. Too few students may master the natural sciences, but the 
>understanding enshrined in Newton's laws of motion and calculus is 
>not going away. Too many people may eat and smoke their way to early 
>graves, but the accurate understanding of the mechanisms of the 
>human body and how they can be healed and repaired and kept healthy 
>aren't going away either.
>After all, we started out in the African savanna, trying to run fast 
>enough to catch up with things we could eat and to stay away from 
>things that could eat us. Our natural destiny was to squat in caves 
>and shiver, then die young. We decided we didn't like that, and we 
>figured out how to do better.
>JAMES O'DONNELL, a classicist and cultural historian at Georgetown 
>University, is the author of "Augustine: A New Biography."

And with that bracingly optimistic affirmation, let me wish you all 
the Happiest of Holidays! We can figure out how to do better!


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