The Importance of Being Uncertain: a Scientific Approach to Optimism
When early science became modern science, its primary aim was to find order in the chaos of Medieval European life—a place then ravaged by continuous war, disease, crime, famine, and natural disasters.
It was very successful in this activity, discovering laws and rules and mathematizing the universe. But around the middle of the 19th century a seismic transition occurred. Beginning with Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution and spreading to physics, chemistry, and even mathematics, the thin layer of certainty that had been bolstered by inductive science was peeled back to expose irreducible randomness and uncertainty as the true governing principles. In this talk, I will develop the idea that contemporary science reveals uncertainty, not certainty, as the more optimistic outlook.
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Dr. Stuart Firestein is the former Chair of Columbia University’s Department of Biological Sciences, where his laboratory studies the vertebrate olfactory system, possibly the best chemical detector on Earth. Aside from its molecular detection capabilities, the olfactory system serves as a model for investigating general principles and mechanisms of signaling and perception in the brain. His laboratory seeks to answer that fundamental human question: How do I smell?
Dedicated to promoting the accessibility of science to a public audience, Firestein serves as an advisor for the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation’s program for the Public Understanding of Science, where he reviews scripts for the Ensemble Studio Theatre/Sloan Science and Technology Program, as well as for the Tribeca and Hamptons International Film Festivals. In 2011, he received the Lenfest Distinguished Columbia Faculty Award for excellence in scholarship and teaching. He is a Fellow of the AAAS, an Alfred Sloan Fellow, and a Guggenheim Fellow. At Columbia, he is on the Advisory boards of the Center for Science and Society (CSS) and the Presidential Scholars in Society and Neuroscience—both centers for interdisciplinary work between the sciences and the humanities. His book on the workings of science for a general audience, Ignorance: How it Drives Science, was released by Oxford University Press in 2012. His second book, Failure: Why Science is So Successful, appeared in October 2015. Both have been translated into twelve languages.