Feynman once told me, "Whatever you do—you're going to have to do crazy things to think about quantum gravity—but whatever you do, think about nature. If you think about the properties of a mathematical equation, you're doing mathematics and you're not going to get back to nature. Whatever you do, have a question that an experiment could resolve at the front of your thinking." So I always try to do that.
LEE SMOLIN is a founding and senior faculty member at Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo, Canada. He is also Adjunct Professor of Physics at the University of Waterloo and is a member of the graduate faculty of the Department of Philosophy of the University of Toronto. His is the author od Time Reborn: From the Crisis in Physics to the Future of the Universe.
THINK ABOUT NATURE
The main question I'm asking myself, the question that puts everything together, is how to do cosmology; how to make a theory of the universe as a whole system. This is said to be the golden age of cosmology and it is from an observational point of view, but from a theoretical point of view it's almost a disaster. It's crazy the kind of ideas that we find ourselves thinking about. And I find myself wanting to go back to basics—to basic ideas and basic principles—and understand how we describe the world in a physical theory.
What's the role of mathematics? Why does mathematics come into physics? What's the nature of time? These two things are very related since mathematical description is supposed to be outside of time. And I've come to a long evolution since the late 80's to a position, which is quite different from the ones that I had originally, and quite surprising even to me. But let me get to it bit by bit. Let me build up the questions and the problems that arise.
One way to start is what I call "physics in a box" or, theories of small isolated systems. The way we've learned to do this is to make an accounting or an itinerary—a listing of the possible states of a system. How can a possible system be? What are the possible configurations? What were the possible states? If it's a glass of Coca Cola, what are the possible positions and states of all the atoms in the glass? Once we know that, we ask, how do the states change? And the metaphor here—which comes from atomism that comes from Democritus and Lucretius—is that physics is nothing but atoms moving in a void and the atoms never change. The atoms have properties like mass and charge that never change in time. The void—which is space in the old days never changed in time—was fixed and they moved according to laws, which were originally given by or tried to be given by Descartes and Galileo, given by Newton much more successfully.
FAREED ZAKARIA GPS (CNN):
BOOK OF THE WEEK
"This week's book of the week is a good one. This Explains Everything: Deep, Beautiful and Elegant Theories of How the World Works. John Brockman, the publisher of the edge.org asks some of the world's best minds for their favorite explanations of anything. The result is a collection that reads like the best TED talks ever. It's an absolute pleasure to read."
#8 Amazon Bestseller List (All Books) April 8th
Prospect Magazine has published its annual world thinkers poll. "World Thinkers 2013" is based on more than 10,000 votes from over 100 countries, "Online polls often throw up curious results," the editors write, "but this top 10 offers a snapshot of the intellectual trends that dominate our age." In it's coverage of the event, the Guardian noted:
When Prospect magazine listed Britain's leading public intellectuals in 2004 and invited readers' votes, it was Richard Dawkins who emerged as No 1. Nine years on, the biologist, author and campaigner has bettered that by topping its "world thinkers" rankings, beating four Nobel prize winners (and another contender regarded as certain to receive one soon) in a poll based on 65 names chosen by a largely US- and UK-based expert panel.
Joining him in the top 10 are the psychologists Steven Pinker (3) and Daniel Kahneman (10), the economists Paul Krugman (5) and Amartya Sen (7) and the philosopher Slavoj Žižek (6), who all, like him, figured in the magazine's first list of world-class thinkers in 2005.
A late run by the octogenarian British physicist Peter Higgs (8) secured him a place in an elite squad containing three other scientists, while the remaining slots are taken by academics turned politicians from the Middle East: Afghanistan's Ashraf Ghani (2), an economist who served as finance minister after the US-led invasion; Iraq's Ali Allawi (4), another ex-minister and author of The Occupation of Iraq and The Crisis of Islamic Civilization; and Egypt's Mohamed ElBaradei (9), prominent in the Arab Spring and now in opposition to Mohamed Morsi.
To qualify for this year's world thinkers rankings, it was not enough to have written a seminal book, inspired an intellectual movement or won a Nobel prize several years ago (hence the absence from the 65-strong long list of ageing titans such as Noam Chomsky or Edward O Wilson); the selectors' remit ruthlessly insisted on "influence over the past 12 months" and "significance to the year's biggest questions". ...("Richard Dawkins named world's top thinker in poll", by John Dugdale, April 25th)
Among the leading 65 public intellectuals on Prospect's long-list are a number of Edgies. Indeed, four out of the top twelve — Richard Dawkins, Steven Pinker, Daniel Kahneman, Jared Diamond — are among the long-time core contributors who have helped establish Edge, in the words of the Guardian, as "the world's smartest website".
Prospect also published a related article on the role of public intellectuals by Edge contributor AC Grayling.
What question about your field do you dread being asked? Maybe it's a sore point: your field should have an answer (people think you do) but there isn't one yet. Perhaps it's simple to pose but hard to answer. Or it's a question that belies a deep misunderstanding: the best answer is to question the question.
WHAT'S THE QUESTION ABOUT YOUR FIELD THAT YOU DREAD BEING ASKED?
For me, it would be "Why are there recessions?" Don't ask.
SENDHIL MULLAINATHAN is Professor of Economics at Harvard. In 2011, he was appointed by the U.S. Treasury Department to serve as Assistant Director for Research at The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB).
[ED. NOTE: Word Length for comments: up to 500 words.]
CONTRIBUTORS: Raj Chetty, Lawrence Krauss *, Adam Alter *, George Dyson, Jens Ludwig, Emanuel Derman, Scott Atran, Jaron Lanier, Haim Harari, Richard Thaler, Paul Bloom, Michael Norton *, Samuel Arbesman *, Lillian Lee *, Jon Kleinberg *, Nicholas Epley *, Susan Blackmore, NEW Nicholas Epley
* Sendhil Mullainathan responds
We've shown that disfluency leads you to think more deeply, as I mentioned earlier, that it forms a cognitive roadblock, and then you think more deeply, and you work through the information more comprehensively. But the other thing it does is it allows you to depart more from reality, from the reality you're at now.
Adam Alter is interested in examining the concrete ways in which we are affected by subtle cues, such as symbols, culture, and colors. Why are Westerners easily fooled by the Müller-Lyer illusion of two lines with different arrows at their ends, while Bushmen from southern Africa are not? Why do certain colors have a calming effect on the intoxicated? Why is it that people with easy-to-pronounce names get ahead in life?
In this conversation, we get an overview of Alter's current line of work on how we experience fluent and disfluent information. Fluency implies that information comes at a very low cost, often because it is already familiar to us in some similar form. Disfluency occurs when information is costly–perhaps it takes a lot of effort to understand a concept, or a name is unfamiliar and therefore difficult to say. His work has interesting implications in the realms of market forces (stocks with pronounceable ticker codes tend to do better when they first enter the market than those that don't, for instance) and globalization, and is highly relevant in a world where cultures continue to meet and to merge.
ADAM ALTER is an Assistant Professor of Marketing at Stern School of Business, NYU. He is the author of Drunk Tank Pink: And Other Unexpected Forces that Shape How We Think, Feel, and Behave.
[This conversation with Adam Alter was conducted in New York City by Edge Editor-at-Large, Jennifer Jacquet.]
From the beginning of psychology, psychologists have been interested in two aspects of thinking. They've been interested in a lot of aspects, but one of the ways of breaking thinking down is into these two. The first is to look at the content of our thoughts or our cognitions. What is the stuff that we're thinking about, and that goes all the way back to the 1800s, with the introspectionists; they were interested in looking at what people were actually thinking about when they were introspecting. That's carried right through psychology from the 1800s to today.
Another aspect that's only been studied much more recently, which has formed the basis for a lot of my research now, is to look at not what people are thinking, but how that experience is for them. What is it like to think about these things? That topic is known as meta-cognition, and it's basically the idea that when we have any thoughts, not only do we have those thoughts, but there's an overlaid experience of how it feels to have those thoughts. Is it easy to generate those thoughts? Is it difficult to process them? Do we feel like we understand what we're thinking about well? Do we think we understand it poorly? I'll give you a couple of examples of this.