Can Science Save the World?

For most people, there has never been a better time to be alive than now – an age when technological innovations can boost living standards dramatically in both the developing and the developed world. But only our individual and collective decisions in the foreseeable future will determine whether twenty-first century science yields benign or devastating outcomes.

CAMBRIDGE – For most people, there has never been a better time to be alive than now. The innovations that drive economic advances – information technology, biotech, and nanotech – can boost living standards in both the developing and the developed world. We are becoming embedded in a cyberspace that can link anyone, anywhere, to all the world’s information and culture – and to every other person on the planet.

Twenty-first century technologies will offer environmentally benign lifestyles and the resources to ease the plight and enhance the life chances of the world’s two billion poorest people. Moreover, the greatest threat of the 1960’s and 1970’s – nuclear annihilation – has diminished. This threat could recur, however, if there is a renewed standoff between new superpowers. And there are other risks stemming from humanity’s greater collective impact on the planet, and from the growing empowerment of individuals.

Soon after World War II, physicists at the University of Chicago started a journal called the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists to promote arms control. The logo on the Bulletin’s cover is a clock, the proximity of whose hands to midnight indicates the editors’ judgment of the precariousness of the world situation. Every few years, the minute hand shifted, either forwards or backwards. It came closest to midnight in 1962 during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

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