Thursday, 3 April 2008

futuristic, prehistoric ... and now

I lost my bearings as I scurried across University Parks heading to the Oxford University Museum of Natural History for the public lecture by James Martin on The Meaning of the 21st Century.

Relieved to see others still making their way in to the magnificently monstrous Victorian building as the daylight seeped away on that March evening, I followed the flow to the buzzing lecture theatre where I’d last sat to listen to Philip Pullman some years ago. This evening there were no children in the crowded theatre but students and professors, clearly of various nationalities. And me.

James Martin is a physicist and a good communicator. British-born, he is known as “the Guru of the Information Age”. In the lecture “Target Earth: The grandscale problems of the 21st century” he used populist imagery but only for the sake of framing each topic. There was nothing vapid about the data or the thesis. His capacity to encompass knowledge from various major disciplines is stunning. He’s tall and big-boned, looks fit, and speaks unpretentiously. What my small brain found difficult was the leap between the looming reality of mega global issues, and the thesis that if we collectively (at government and corporate level) have the right mind, we have the means to make all turn out well. But in my simple way I trust the thinking of this man.

Feedback on their blog invited by The 21st Century School (founded in Oxford by James Martin) focuses on the apparent lack of investment in getting minds changed, while investing generously in further research. But I believe history shows that scientific development is always the trigger of every other shift in human awareness, including social and religious; so, again, I trust the notion that the creation of this multidisciplinary academic research centre has something key to offer to our shared future beyond the 21st century. Alison Stibbe, the School’s Outreach Manager, has responded on the blog saying “the need for understanding and formulating new frameworks for generating positive global collective action has already been identified as a key priority among its aims. We recognise that no single solution will provide the answer to global problems.”

I note their mix of complex, high level academic engagement with open access events and interface such as the blogs. Overcoming Bias, the Future Humanity Institute blog, covers dead serious stuff and scary funny stuff – like:

this post (including power to robots. Help!)

an amusing April 1st commentary on scientific breakthroughs and media mindset

And look at the breadth of interest covered in forthcoming events of the 21st Century School.

Back to that night in March: as the lecture ended we all came back to the present day and made our way down the neo-gothic stairs to the grand hall of the museum where we chatted, bought signed copies of James Martin’s book, and drank champagne. And I wandered among the skeletons and models of the massive creatures that walked this planet before humans even began to know they would be part of the future. Then I put on my gloves and hat and went for the bus.

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