Creating a Favorable Future

April 01, 2019

Joel PrimackIn my last president’s letter for Sigma Xi, I want to think long term. After all, I’m a cosmologist.

We owe our children and grandchildren a livable world. Since 1800, humanity’s growth in resource use has had a doubling time of about 30 years. We humans are now changing the climate and other properties of the Earth in ways that will have consequences far into the future. 

We must control this exponential growth on the timescale of the next doubling, about 30 years—the timescale of a generation. I believe that Sigma Xi researchers can help to do this as well as help an increasing fraction of the population to understand the necessity of addressing this issue. I have proposed an expanded Sigma Xi speaker program for researchers to deliver talks that might help more people understand what science is and why scientific knowledge is essential to creating a desirable future. 

We need to think differently about the future. The following is a thought experiment from A God That Could Be Real: Spirituality, Science, and the Future of Our Planet  by my wife, Nancy Ellen Abrams (Beacon Press, 2016), in the chapter on how to become a revered ancestor:

Economics tells us to discount the present value of any good that won’t appear or any event that won’t occur for a long time. Misapplying this formula to human beings, we discount the value of their lives, treating people of the future like some kind of low-probability event, barely worth worrying about. To see how crazy that is, imagine if we knew that the present generation would have a normal life but shortly after we die the entire human race would go extinct. Life would lose its meaning! What would be the point of everything we do or create, from raising a child to making a scientific discovery or starting a company? We need those future people now. To them we owe a spiritual debt for making our lives worthwhile.

One way to help create a favorable future world is to support organizations such as Sigma Xi. Nominate promising young researchers for associate membership, reinvigorate chapters, and attend the next Annual Meeting. Developing a theme for our Annual Meeting—in 2018 it was Big Data and the Future of Research—was a big success, with more member and sponsor participation than in recent history. The theme for the 2019 Annual Meeting, which will be held November 14–17, in Madison, Wisconsin, will be Our Changing Global Environment: Scientists and Engineers Designing Solutions for the Future. Join us, and help make a difference for the future.

Joel R. Primack
Sigma Xi Fiscal Year 2019 President

This letter will appear in the May–June issue of Sigma Xi's magazine, American Scientist. 

More About Sigma Xi: Sigma Xi, The Scientific Research Honor Society is the world’s largest multidisciplinary honor society for scientists and engineers. Its mission is to enhance the health of the research enterprise, foster integrity in science and engineering, and promote the public understanding of science for the purpose of improving the human condition. Sigma Xi chapters can be found at colleges and universities, government laboratories, and industry research centers around the world. More than 200 Nobel Prize winners have been members. The Society is based in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina. On Twitter: @SigmaXiSociety