Scientists Who Give Their Minds to Study, Can Give Names, Too (Subscription Required)

[ Thu. Jan. 1. 2004 ]

Heisenberg has one, and so do Boyle and Maxwell: A scientific principle, law or rule with their moniker attached.

It isn't every day that a researcher discovers the uncertainty principle, an ideal gas law, or the mathematical structure of electromagnetism. And ours is the era of real-estate moguls, phone companies and others slapping their name on every building, stadium and arena in sight.

So, John Brockman, a New York literary agent, writer and impresario of the online salon Edge, figures it is time for more scientists to get in on the whole naming thing.

As a New Year's exercise, he asked scores of leading thinkers in the natural and social sciences for "some bit of wisdom, some rule of nature, some law-like pattern, either grand or small, that you've noticed in the universe that might as well be named after you."

The responses, to be posted soon on Mr. Brockman's Web site, range from the whimsical to the somber, from cosmology to neuroscience.

Some of the proposed laws have the whiff of a paradigm shift. Harvard University psychologist Steven Kosslyn is known for his work at the border of mind and brain, including placebo effects. Hence, Kosslyn's First Law: "Body and mind are not as separate as they appear to be; not only does the state of the body affect the mind, but vice-versa."

Author Jay Ogilvy, a co-founder of the Global Business Network, has a similar hunch, He questions whether the mind can be reduced to a storm of electrical impulses and droplets of neurotransmitters. According to Ogilvy's Law, it's fine to recognize that the Cartesian separation of mind and matter went too far (the mind, pace Descartes, does have something to do with the brain). But that doesn't compel us to go to the other extreme, that everything mental can be completely reduced to brain activity and that mind can be reduced to matter.

Irene Pepperberg, too, has mind on her mind. A visiting professor at the MIT Media Lab, her studies challenge the cognitive-science dogma that only humans are capable of sophisticated language and consciousness. Alex, a parrot she trained, regularly spouts novel sentences, yet skeptics insist he has no understanding of what he is saying.

Hence, Pepperberg's (exasperated, if I may say so) Law of Comparative Cognition: "Any behavior exhibited by young children that is taken as evidence of the early emergence of intelligence will, when subsequently exhibited by nonhumans, be interpreted by many humans as a set of simple stimulus-response associations lacking cognitive processing."

A strand of humility runs through the offerings. These are glory days for cosmology, with ever-better space telescopes drawing a bead on the origins and evolution of the universe. Yet astrophysicist John Barrow, of the University of Cambridge, cautions in his First Law, "Any Universe simple enough to be understood is too simple to produce a mind able to understand it."

Physicist Freeman Dyson, emeritus professor of physics at the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, N.J., is no more sanguine. In Dyson's Law of Obsolescence, he warns, "If you are writing history and try to keep it up-to-date to a time T before the present, it will be out-of-date within a time T after the present.

This law applies also to scientific review articles." To which technology author ("Machines Who Think") Pamela McCorduck adds her own caveat: "A linear projection into the future of any science or technology is like a form of propaganda -- often persuasive, almost always wrong." Take that, fans of New Year's predictions.

One veteran of the campaign to put pedagogy on a scientific footing questions whether discoveries in developmental neuroscience -- such as the power of experience to profoundly alter a child's brain -- can serve as the basis for better teaching. As his law, psychologist Howard Gardner of Harvard University offers, "You can never go directly from a scientific discovery to an educational recommendation: All educational practices presuppose implicit or explicit value judgments."

Mathematics inspired John Allen Paulos of Temple University, Philadelphia, to devise his Law of Coincidence: "People often note some unlikely conjunction of events and marvel at the coincidence. Could anything be more wonderfully improbable, they wonder? The answer is yes. The most amazing coincidence of all would be the complete absence of coincidence."

John Maddox learned a thing or two about human nature in 23 years as editor of the journal Nature.

Hence, his First and Second Laws: "Those who scorn the 'publish or perish' principle are the most eager to see their own manuscripts published quickly and given wide publicity -- and the least willing to see their length reduced. Reviewers who are best placed to understand an author's work are the least likely to draw attention to its achievements, but are prolific sources of minor criticism, especially the identification of typos."

You can find other proposed laws of nature on the Edge Web site. Who knows? Maybe one or more might eventually join Heisenberg in the nomenclature pantheon.

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