THIS EXPLAINS EVERYTHING: 192 THINKERS ON THE MOST ELEGANT THEORY OF HOW THE WORLD WORKS Maria Popova

[ Tue. Jan. 22. 2013 ]

Characteristically thought-provoking and reliably cross-disciplinary, This Explains Everything is a must-read in its entirety.

"The greatest pleasure in science comes from theories that derive the solution to some deep puzzle from a small set of simple principles in a surprising way."

Every year since 1998, intellectual impresario and Edge editor John Brockman has been posing a single grand question to some of our time's greatest thinkers across a wide spectrum of disciplines, then collecting the answers in an annual anthology. Last year's answers to the question "What scientific concept will improve everybody's cognitive toolkit?" were released in This Will Make You Smarter: New Scientific Concepts to Improve Your Thinking, one of the year's best psychology and philosophy books.
 
In 2012, the question Brockman posed, proposed by none other than Steven Pinker, was "What is your favorite deep, elegant, or beautiful explanation." The answerers, representing an eclectic mix of 192 (alas, overwhelmingly male) minds spanning psychology, quantum physics, social science, political theory, philosophy, and more, are collected in the edited compendium This Explains Everything: Deep, Beautiful, and Elegant Theories of How the World Works (UK; public library) and are also available online.
 
In the introduction preceding the micro-essays, Brockman frames the question and its ultimate objective, adding to history's most timeless definitions of science:
 
The ideas presented on Edge are speculative; they represent the frontiers in such areas as evolutionary biology, genetics, computer science, neurophysiology, psychology, cosmology, and physics. Emerging out of these contributions is a new natural philosophy, new ways of understanding physical systems, new ways of thinking that call into question many of our basic assumptions. … Perhaps the greatest pleasure in science comes from theories that derive the solution to some deep puzzle from a small set of simple principles in a surprising way. These explanations are called 'beautiful' or 'elegant.' … The contributions presented here embrace scientific thinking in he broadest sense: as the most reliable way of gaining knowledge about anything — including such fields of inquiry as philosophy, mathematics, economics, history, language, and human behavior. The common thread is that a simple and nonobvious idea is proposed as the explanation of a diverse and complicated set of phenomena.