[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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