This inspired idea was begun by Brockman on the Edge website, as his annual forum for experts to answer one given question using layman's language. It has led to this fabulous book – a mine of accessible science that is food for mind and soul, in three-page essays apiece.
The question: "What scientific concept would improve everybody's cognitive toolkit?" Answers from a roster of 160 big brains (Matt Ridley, Brian Eno, Richard Dawkins, et al) traverse across the cosmos, deep time and the unconscious. A real must-read.
Stanford professor and neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky chooses to discuss swarm intelligence.
"Observe a single ant," he notes, "and it doesn't make much sense – walking in one direction, suddenly careening in another for no obvious reason, doubling back on itself. Thoroughly unpredictable. The same happens with two ants, with a handful of ants.
"But a colony of ants makes fantastic sense. Specialized jobs, efficient means of exploiting new food sources, complex underground nests with temperature regulated within a few degrees."
What's fascinating about all this, Sapolsky goes on to say, is that "there's no blueprint or central source of command." Rather than "the wisdom of the crowd," the complexity of an ant colony depends on simple behavior algorithms "that consist of a few simple rules for interacting with the local environment and local ants."
Each year, John Brockman, editor and publisher of Edge.org, asks some of the world's most brilliant thinkers a single question. In 2012, it was: "What is your favorite deep, elegant or beautiful explanation?" This Explains Everything collects 150 answers, from a range of disciplines and in a variety of lengths and styles.
This year is the question a bit gloomy: What should we be worried about? Or: What are you worried about for scientific reasons that has not yet appeared on the popular radar?
[From a summary of ten selected answers:]
Protecting children from curses and taboo words
In the United States, public broadcast television and radio stations do not like words such as cocksucker, cunt, fuck, motherfucker, piss, shit, and tits. The point is that these words would harm the child's fragile psyche. But it is nonsense to avoid rhe public use of such words, says cognitive scientist Benjamin Bergen (University of California, San Diego). The only risk that children face when they hear these words, he writes, is that they expand their vocabulary. "And even that chance is very small, as anyone can testify who has recently listened to what happens on the playground of an elementary school. " Moreover: these dirty words derive their power precisely because they are subject to censorship. Remove the taboo and they immediately be less threatening.
... presents a very interesting hypothesis as to how the brain works: the brain, it explains, makes decisions through iterative event synthesis based upon experience exceeding a judgmental threshold. In addition, the author shows how species with limited frames of reference concentrate and populate in areas away from the largest numbers of species.
An important treatise on how the world works in real terms. Its explanations are not tautologies; however, the examples cited comport with classic problem areas in the natural sciences and engineering. The contents of this book could provide for some very interesting scientific and philosophical debates on the nature of how things operate.
Around the same time, I was checking out responses to a question that science-book agent John Brockman just posted Edge.org: “What should we be worried about?” Brockman has been posing questions like this to his stable of professional eggheads, or Edgeheads, annually since 1998. Reading over responses to Brockman’s question, I was struck by how many Edgeheads are fretting over the future of particle physics in particular and pure science in general. Here are edited excerpts from Edge.org: ...
6. THIS EXPLAINS EVERYTHING: Deep, Beautiful, and Elegant Theories of How the World Works
John Brockman (Harper Perennial; $15.99). [ED. NOTE: Sales Week Ending February 3, 2013]
Every year Edge produces a profound question a treasure trove of ideas. ... deep, comprehensive questions that challenge authors's to respond with a sharp and interesting answer. This year's question is simple: what is your favorite theory about how the world works, preferably one that is deep, beautiful and maybe even elegant too.
Brockman's authors, including regulars such as Richard Dawkins, Freeman Dyson, Martin Rees, Max Tegmark, Steven Pinker and Daniel Dennett, have struggled visibly to stay out of each other's waters. Darwin and Einstein: almost everybody refers to them, and then decided that there must be a more qualified differences to address.
That does not mean this year's question is wrong. On the contrary. More than in other years, it pushed authors to come up with truly original answers.
This yields a treasure trove of ideas and observations. Psychologist Mahzarin Banji example, who sees limits to our mind. Richard Thaler notes that our ability to concentrate is the key to everything. Dawkins points out the universal role of pattern recognition. Chance as creative power, says John McWorther. Conflict as a creative force, says Steven Pinker. The ability of the human brain to create and manipulate abstractions, writes mathematician Keith Devlin.
Each one is a beautiful and instructive reflection, which encourages thinking and reading.
If you, without any reference, enter Edge inadvertently, you might think that you have come upon a useful digital magazine. It will be a mistake. Edge is not a magazine but a conversation, probably the most useful space at the moment for anyone who wants to peer into the flowering of the most advanced human thought. In Edge, there is no stable of contributors who write eye-catching articles on different topics that have come to be called culture; There is a surprising territory where one finds, in rigorous disarray, the vanguard of scientific knowledge, at this technological and humanistic moment.
That which has come to be called the third culture.
....Edge is the opposite of Twitter: there is only room for those who have something to say, things that say they are solidly argued and, of course, there is no way to synthesize anything in 140 characters.
Stop by there....Edge is an online salon that has preserved millions of words that trace the most fascinating cultural conversation of the last fifteen years. Cultural, of course, in the best sense of the word. The seventeen Edge Questions formulated as of today have resulted in a total of over two thousand responses, and provide one of the most complete ready-to-wear knowledge bases, ideal for incorporation into the wardrobe of our particular wisdom.
It's not useful nor does it make sense to summarize. You have to go and read it daily, to have intellectual food for a few months because each of these reflections is a micro-essay on a specific topic that opens doors to reflection and study in all fields of human knowledge.
...for the polemical technology author Evgeny Morozov, the best answer was the word "smart" itself. ... All this smart awesomeness will make our environment more plastic and more programmable," Morozov argued. ... In this, Morozov’s critique overlaps with a second significant contemporary word: "fragility." As Black Swan author Nassim Nicholas Taleb explains in his 2012 book Antifragile, a "fragile" system is easily broken by unexpected shocks or irregularities. Global finance was one such system at the time of the 2008 crisis, with its locked-in assumptions about risk and cascading series of bad debts. Antifragility ... describes a system that is able to thrive on uncertainty, and that will not be brought crashing down by circumstances its designers did not anticipate.
Edge.org is a website that is definitely worth reading, and rightly enjoys being known as "The world's smartest website." It has a great form of online debate in which world experts, the most meritorious scientists, philosophers, entrepreneurs, are invited to answer a question. The get the year off to a good start, Edge asked the question: "What *Should* We Be Worried About". The answers are often quite abstract, drifting in the direction of loose discussion of broader, long-term problems. Some, however, relate to current problem that sooner or later will catch up to us.
…A long, but extremely nutritious and useful reading, which I recommend to all.
Two eerie story collections and two comic novels are part of this month’s crop, along with an anthology that has science writers aiming to explain, well, everything.
THIS EXPLAINS EVERYTHING
Edited by John Brockman
411 pages. Harper Perennial. $15.99.
Mr. Brockman, the editor and publisher of Edge.org, asked the thinkers in his online science community to share their favorite “deep, elegant or beautiful” explanation. . . . a handy collection of 150 shortcuts to understanding how the world works. Elegance in this context means, as the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins writes, the “power to explain much while assuming little.” . . . Among the things this book will teach you? How much you don’t know.
For tens of thousands of people the Internet magazine edge.org's annual question is a traditional event awaited just as the expected New Year's celebrations. Wish complex ritual interesting, short and broad scope aspects. Participants include 150 intellectuals and researchers who are among the most important and original in the world. The collection of responses creates a bridge of bright, attractive, sharp and precise thinking between the world of scientific work and the world of humanism and the idea ofman and society.
"A COLLECTION of essays by big thinkers answering big questions may never be a page-turner, but should still be deeply satisfying. And This Explains Everything delivers."
Of course it is not the technology that makes us dumber, it is we ourselves. To counteract this, you can read a text by Jaron Lanier — a virtual reality pioneer who become nätskeptiker - on edge.org (short link is.gd / jlanier). I would also recommend Eli Parisers book "The Filter Bubble", Evgeny Morozovs "The net delusion" and — most relevant to a discussion of e-books and changing reading habits - Nicholas Carr's "The shallows".
What should we worry about? Scan the headlines, and the answers seem obvious. We should worry about Congress and the debt ceiling, about gun violence and climate change, about terrorism, the euro, schools, taxes, entitlement programs and Kim Kardashian's sunburn.
But how confident are we that we're worried about the right things? History shows that our concerns are often misguided or conditioned on outdated assumptions. Ask 100 motorists the colors of a "yield" sign, and most will say yellow and black, even though they've been red and white since 1971. But if we still believe in yellow and black despite all evidence to the contrary, what other assumptions will lead us astray? Our endless fretting over Y2K didn't stop terrorists armed with box cutters.
So, what really should we worry about? It's the official question John Brockman posed this year to his jury of top intellectuals. Brockman isthe über literary agent, cultural impresario and best friend to the world's smartest people. He runs edge.org, a science/arts salon with lofty ambitions: "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."
These are people who, presumably, don't sweat the small stuff. Brockman's question drew 150 short essays from among the salon's 660 vetted contributors. Concerns about runaway viruses and Chinese eugenics made the cut, as did a handful of glib commentaries about the perils of worrying. But the overarching theme was easy to spot:
We should worry about the interplay between humans and technology. ...
I hereby announce the formation of an international campaign to eliminate all future uses of the phrase, "Work smarter, not harder." ... As the cyber-sceptic Evgeny Morozov pointed out this month, in an article at edge.org, Silicon Valley loves nothing more than proposing "smart" solutions to problems such as crime, voter apathy or climate change. Yet the word blurs a crucial distinction: a smart solution may be ingenious, but it doesn't follow that implementing it will necessarily be for the best. We can persuade people to vote, some techno-reformers argue, using clever incentives, such as shopping discounts or video game-style prizes. But should we, if it risks coarsening democracy, eroding the role of argument and deliberation in persuading people to vote? The answer may be "yes", of course. But Morozov's point is that we fail to ask such questions in the first place.
Every year John Brockman, editor of the online salon Edge, puts forth a question that he hopes will inspire fascinating answers from leading scientists and thinkers, such as Steven Pinker, Jared Diamond, and Sherry Turkle. He has done it again. This time he asked, "What is your favorite deep, elegant, or beautiful explanation?" A multiplicity of answers are offered in the compact, accessible essays that form "This Explains Everything: Deep, Beautiful, and Elegant Theories of How the World Works" (Harper), edited by Brockman. If you want to increase the intellectual heft of your reading while keeping it entertaining, "This Explains Everything" will do nicely.
Edge.org is a website where really smart people write about subjects that make most people's heads hurt. I check it out whenever I need to feel particularly stupid.
...This year's subject was suggested by the technology historian George Dyson: "What should we be worried about?"
Dyson's premise: "[P]eople tend to worry too much about things that it doesn't do any good to worry about, and not to worry enough about things we should be worrying about." This sounded good to me. My hobbies include worrying, moping and brooding. As I previously have confessed, I spend way too much time obsessing about grizzly bear attacks. ... I figured the Edge.org piece could help me spend my leisure hours more effectively.... I figured wrong. ... First off, some 150 really smart people contributed things to worry about. Their essays ran to 168 printed pages. I got through maybe 50 of them before going catatonic. ...
Science salon Edge.org is permeated with a sense of wonder. Maybe that's what lured in the many brainy contributors (Steven Pinker, Brian Eno) to This Explains Everything: Deep, Beautiful, and Elegant Theories of How the World Works, edited by John Brockman ($18, Harper Perennial).