Tag Archives: Science

This Explains Everything edited by John Brockman

thisexplainseverythingEdge is a collection of people, leaders in fields from physics to biology and successful business people and musicians. People we’ve all heard of, like Alan Alda, Jared Diamond, Steven Pinker, and Richard Dawkins, along with a lot of other people that aren’t yet household names, but are leaders in their respective fields. The goal of Edge is to simply get people — intellectual leaders of all sorts — and have them talk. Have them ask questions to one another, have them discuss important topics and push the frontiers of what we, collectively, know. As they summarize their purpose:

To arrive at the edge of the world’s knowledge, seek out the most complex and sophisticated minds, put them in a room together, and have them ask each other the questions they are asking themselves.

As part of this goal to ask and answer questions, each year the Edge contributors propose and vote on a question that they then each try to answer. This has been going on for a few years now and each year the answers are collected into a book, edited each year by John Brockman. The latest book, which is also the first one I read, is called This Explains Everything and collects the answers to the question: What is your favorite deep, elegant, or beautiful explanation?

The book collects about 150 answers from a large variety of people. Each answer is 1-10 pages and vary from choosing Darwin’s Theory of Natural Selection, to Maxwell’s Equations (what I personally would have chosen if I were part of this), to more modern cutting edge science that, to be honest, is sometimes a bit hard to follow. And it isn’t all science, there are poets and musicians who also contribute their answers.

For me, the best thing about this book isn’t necessarily knowing what Jared Diamond’s favorite explanation is, but rather to get different views on well established science, such as Darwin, as well as become exposed to new ideas that, as a scientist working in a very narrow field, I don’t come across in my daily work. Some of the ideas are simply weird — Aubrey De Grey suggests that it won’t be long until monogamy is a thing of the past, essentially equating sharing sexual partners to sharing chess partners. I’m not sure I buy that one. But, there are a lot of other great ideas which I was very happy to learn about. A couple of my favorites:

  • Scott Atran: “reason itself is primarily aimed at social victory and political persuasion rather than philosophical or scientific truth”
  • Joel Gold: “Aristotle defined man as a rational animal. Contradictions like these [described earlier] show that we are not.”
  • Paul Steinhardt, in describing the discovery of quasi-crystals: “While elegance and simplicity are often useful criteria for judging theories, they can sometimes mislead us into thinking we are right when we are actually infinitely wrong.”
  • Frank Wilczek: “In theoretical physics, we try to summarize the results of a vast number of observations and experiments in terms of a few powerful laws. We strive, in other words, to produce the shortest possible program that outputs the world. In that precise sense, theoretical physics is a quest for simplicity.”
  • Gerd Gigerenzer: “Illusions are a necessary consequence of intelligence. Cognition requires going beyond the information given, to make bets and therefore to risk errors.”
  • Anton Zeilinger: “without occasionally taking a risk, even in the most exact science no real innovation can be introduced.”
  • Andre Linde: “mathematicians and physicists can live only in those universes that are comprehensible and where the laws of mathematics are efficient.”
  • Gino Segre: “I have spent a good part of my career searching for an explanation of the masses of the so-called elementary particles. But perhaps the reason it has eluded us is a proposal that is increasingly gaining credence — namely, that our visible universe is only a random example of an essentially infinite number of universes, all of which contain quarks and leptons with masses taking different values.”
  • Andrian Kreye: “In Europe, the present is perceived as the endpoint of history. In America, the present is perceived as the beginning of the future.”
  • Helena Cronin: “And thus environments, far from being separate from biology, autonomous and independent, are themselves in part fashioned by biology.”
  • John Tooby: “Natural selection is the only known counterweight to the tendency of physical systems to lose rather than grow functional organization — the only natural process that pushes populations of organisms uphill (sometimes) into higher degrees of functional order.” and “Entropy makes things fall, but life ingeniously rigs the game so that when they do, they often fall into place.”
  • Peter Atkins: “We, too, are local abatements of chaos driven into being by the generation of disorder elsewhere.”
  • Elizabeth Dunn, on why we feel pressed for time: “They argue that as time becomes worth more and more money, time is seen as scarcer.”
  • Seth Lloyd: “The true symmetry of space is not rotation by 360 degrees but by 720 degrees.”
  • Tim O’Reilly: “Climate change really is a modern version of Pascal’s wager. On one side, the worst outcome is that we’ve built a more robust economy. On the other, the worst outcome really is Hell. In short, we do better if we believe in climate change and act on that belief, even if we turn out to be wrong.”
  • Alvy Ray Smith, on Pixar’s development of animation: “Motion blur was the crucial breakthrough. In effect, motion blur shows your brain the path a movement is taking and also its magnitude.”
  • Albert-Laszlo Barabasi: “North America and Western European cuisine show a strong tendency to combine ingredients that share chemicals… East Asian cuisine thrives by avoiding ingredients that share flavor chemicals.”
  • Lawrence Krauss, on the unification of electricity and magnetism and Maxwell’s equations: “It represents to me all that is best about science: It combined surprising empirical discoveries with a convoluted path to a remarkably simple and elegant mathematical framework, which explained far more than was ever bargained for and in the process produced the technology that powers modern civilization.”
  • Robert Kurzban: “The idea is that when people intervene in systems with a lot of moving parts — especially ecologies and economies — the intervention, because of the complex interrelationships among the system’s parts, will have effects beyond those intended, including many that were unforeseen or unforeseeable.”
  • Samuel Barondes: “personality differences are greatly influenced by chance events.”
  • Stanislas Dehaene: “Our brain makes decisions by accumulating the available statistical evidence and committing to a decision whenever the total exceeds a threshold.”
  • Andy Clark: “Language thus behaves a bit like an organism adapting to an environmental niche. We are that niche.”
  • Nicholas Carr: “The shape of existence is the shape of failure.”

(Ok, my list is a little long… but it serves to illustrate some of the very interesting ideas and concepts that were discussed in this book.)

As I mentioned, the best thing about this book was just being exposed to ideas beyond what I encounter in my daily work. Not all of them are things I can personally use in my work, but they show some of the cutting edge work being done in other fields.

I greatly enjoyed the book and have already downloaded my next one from this group, This Will Change Everything.

 

Lost Musings

Warning: Spoilers follow.

I’m not a Lostie.  I didn’t watch any of the first season.  But my wife got into it and eventually I started watching to, catching maybe half of the remaining episodes, enjoying them enough that I was into the characters and the storyline.  Maybe not as much as some who watched from the beginning, but enough to look forward to the episodes I could catch.

I understand that the writers, from what they’ve said, view Lost as a character-driven show.  And there were characters I enjoyed, most of all Daniel Faraday, Sayid, and John Locke.  The writers emphasize this because they know that those who are into the show because of the mythology were going to be disappointed.

And, I, being one of those that was more interested in the mythology, was disappointed by Lost’s end.  The final episode was all about the characters and not at all about the mythology.  Not a single new insight was revealed.  The writers state that the mythology doesn’t matter, that the show was always about the characters.  I don’t buy it.  The mythology — the mystery of the island — was the hook that gave Lost that unique spin at the beginning.  The characters were extremely important, but so too was the island itself.  And nothing was revealed about what the island was.  Based on what Jack’s dad said, we can infer that the island was a real place.  And the fact that characters came to the island and left again for the outside world also implies that the island was a real place in the real world.  However, how does a place with the strange properties of the island exist in the real world?  What does it represent?  Where did it come from?  How does it have the properties it does?  Whether pseudo-science or magic, the island was not something of the normal world.  What was it exactly?

The more I’ve dwelt on it, the more I wondering if there was no real rhyme or reason to the island.  Things were just random.  Strangeness comes and goes with no explanation.  The time travel was central for a while, but then it was dropped, especially the whole time-works-differently meme that Faraday explored.  I missed the polar bear, but that seems to have never come up again.  The temple seems to be another example of this.  It almost feels that the island was one big Duex Ex Machina who’s only purpose was to throw obstacles into the characters’ ways, to cause confrontation.  I’ve seen others wonder the same.  I don’t mind that random things happen to the characters.  That’s the way life is.  But, there has to be order to what can happen.  Lost didn’t have that.

In my opinion, the mythology of the show is just not self-consistent or fleshed out, probably not even to the writers.  If you create a world for your characters to play in, it should be the first rule that you make the rules of the world consistent, that they have some logic and reason behind them.  They don’t have to have anything to do with our world, and can involve magic or super-science, but they have to have order to them.  The mythology of the island doesn’t seem to.  Why was it so bad for the Man in Black to leave the island?  What would happen?  What would happen if the island had been destroyed?  These fundamental questions to the show’s premise were never even touched upon.

I’m also annoyed, as I was with Battlestar Galactica, that, in the end, the struggle between faith — embodied by John Locke — and science/reason — personified by Jack Shephard — ended with faith essentially winning out.  Jack embraces the mystical of the island, embraces the destiny that John had always told him was there, and becomes the protector of the island, on faith.  And the last scene is nothing except a homage to faith and an afterlife.  Reason loses out, just as it did in Battlestar Galactica.

Overall, what I did watch about Lost I enjoyed.  I especially liked the story-telling devices: the flashbacks, the flash-forwards, and the flash-sideways.  I liked that there was no black and white, that even the most despised characters — Linus and the Man in Black — were nuanced characters with motivation (though the Man in Black became pretty one-dimensional at the end).  There was a lot of positive to the show.  But, there was enough negative that left me overall disappointed with the end result.

Maybe the writers do have a coherent idea of what the mythology of their world is.  If they do, I didn’t see it.