Monday, January 02, 2012

Big Think - 2011: The Year in Ideas

Nice summary of the major ideas from 2011, by Daniel Honan of Big Think.

2011, The Year in Ideas

What's the Big Idea?

Was 2011 a good year for ideas? In other words, did mankind advance knowledge through scientific discoveries or other breakthroughs in thinking in the past 12 months? This is a question we are obsessed with at Big Think. While the answer may be nearly impossible to quantify, we have compiled a concise survey below of the most significant and relevant ideas that rose to light on Big Think in 2011. Please feel free to offer your suggestions in the comment thread below.

One of the most alarming milestones this year was the human population hitting 7 billion. The current rate of human population growth, which Harvard biologist E. O. Wilson called "more bacterial than primate," will put us over 9 billion by 2050.

How many people can the Earth sustain? It depends who you ask, but even the most optimistic scientists have stated that we are well past the point where we can sustain our current levels of consumption, especially if everyone on the planet consumed like North Americans. We would need perhaps 4 Earths to support that kind of consumption of resources. For anyone interested in learning more about this challenge, watch this excerpt from Great Big Ideas, a new online course offered by The Floating University, multiple-award-winning mathematical biologist Joel Cohen explains that population interacts with environment, economics, and culture to shape our world. 

So what's the solution? One of the books we are most looking forward to in the New Year is Abundance (due out in February, 2012) by Peter Diamandis and Steven Kotler, which takes the contrarian view that "we will soon be able to meet and exceed the basic needs of every man, woman and child on the planet," the authors write. "Abundance for all is within our grasp." When seen through the lens of technology, "few resources are truly scarce; they're mainly inaccessible. Yet the threat of scarcity still dominates our worldview." Stay tuned to Big Think to learn more about this in the New Year. 

In 2011, we finally came to grasp the awesome potential of solar power, and to put this potential in its proper context. While solar accounts for less than 1 percent of the world's energy needs, according to Ray Kurzweil, "driven by exponentially-increasing nanotechnology, solar will satisfy the entire world's energy needs in 16 years."

"The First Trillionaires Will Make Their Fortunes in Space" was one of my favorite headlines of 2011, and the idea comes from, once again, space enthusiast and X Prize founder Peter Diamandis. 

Twenty trillion USD is the estimated market value of a relatively small metallic asteroid that was first calculated by John S. Lewis in his book Mining The Sky: Untold Riches from the Asteroids, Comets, and PlanetsLewis argued that "using presently available or readily foreseeable technologies, we can relieve Earth of its energy problem, make astronomical amounts of raw materials available, and raise the living standard of people worldwide." Diamandis notes that everything we hold of value, "the things we fight wars over," such as metals, minerals and real estate, exist "in infinite quantities in space."

While NASA's space shuttle era drew to a close this year, the incentives are there for private companies and private teams like those started by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen and space entrepreneur Elon Musk.

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