Computer scientist David Gelernter answering the 2013 annual question of Edge.org, "What should we be worried about?"
If we have a million photos, we tend to value each one less than if we only had ten. The internet forces a general devaluation of the written word: a global deflation in the average word's value on many axes. As each word tends to get less reading-time and attention and to be worth less money at the consumer end, it naturally tends to absorb less writing-time and editorial attention on the production side. Gradually, as the time invested by the average writer and the average reader in the average sentence falls, society's ability to communicate in writing decays. ...
10. THIS EXPLAINS EVERYHING: Deep, Beautiful, and Elegant Theories of How the World Works John Brockman (Harper Perennial; $15.99)
Anxiety is not only the most common mental problem in the United States, it verges on a national obsession. Last year, New York Magazine declared it the signature diagnosis of our time with Xanax as its pharmacological mascot, taking over from depression and Prozac in the 1990s. The New York Times devotes an entire ongoing series to probing the anxious mind. And the online forum the Edge asks as its key question for 2013: "what should we be worried about?" All this worrying represents our own apocalyptic myopia. Before we know it, we're not just worrying about love, death, sickness, children, money—we're worrying about the worrying itself.
In a review published early last year in The Observer, the cultural entrepreneur John Brockman had his friend artist James Lee Byars had shared with him a sort of epiphany that changed his life. Byars believed that "to achieve a satisfactory level of knowledge would be crazy to go to Widener Library at Harvard and read six million books. Instead, they should be locked up in a room at the 100 brightest minds in the world and have them ask each other the things we were wondering themselves. "
The experiment did not work exactly as I imagined Byars, but that room Brockman built virtually in 1996 to create Edge.org, a site that brings together more than 600 scientists, artists, philosophers, entrepreneurs, and other intellectuals who share their knowledge free with the world, in order to "reach the boundaries (edge) of knowledge." One of the most interesting ways to share in this forum is through the question posed annually. In 2010, the question was "how the Internet is changing the way you think? ". In 2011, the question was "What scientific concept would improve your thinking?". And the most recent question was "what is your explanation profound, beautiful or elegant favorite?". ... If you review some of the more than 190 answers posted online find, among others, a physicist who explains why his favorite is "why we live in a world understandable" and a psychologist who vote for the "sexual conflict theory "along with many others, from the most general to the most specialized. Certainly, reading material for several months.
Each December for the past 15 years, John Brockman, a literary agent, search among business cards to invite the best scientists and writers discuss what occasion of scientific concepts can improve the cognitive ability of humanity. The topic we discussed in December last year is "What do we have to worry about in 2013?" ...
The crisis of the Internet
Does not need to fear that any young person is inventing nuclear weapons in some neighborhood low, because this work needs a lot of financial resources and it is difficult to do it without being noticed by people. However, if this young man has a laptop with access to the Internet, you can devote a few hours every day to take advantage of electronic defects in the world, and hardly anyone notices. In addition, the cost is very low, also the risk of being punished after being caught.
They're two different brains. I started as an academic, and I thought that was all I was ever going to be. As for the media career, it was all just a complete accident. I was at Berkeley, and there was a fight over the ban of affirmative action. I thought that affirmative action—the way they had done it—had become obsolete. Not wrong, but enough time had passed and it was time to base affirmative action on socioeconomics. Saying that in the late 1990s in Berkeley and Oakland—you were not supposed to say that as a young black professor. I wrote an essay on the website edge.org, and the publisher of my linguistics book suggested that I expand it into a book. At first I said no: Why would anybody care what some linguist thinks about race issues? But I wrote it [Losing the Race] because I felt very passionate about the issue, and I just love writing.
The biologist and paleontologist Scott D. Sampson was the only one to get the scoop on natural disasters and man's aggression in the environment, and only Giulio Boccaletti drew attention to the alarming decrease of water resources of the planet. Jonathan Gottschall cited violence in fiction. No more than two participants proved worried about economic growth tied to financial speculation. Detail: one, Satyajit Das, is a financier. ...
The population explosion never forgotten gained new contours with eugenics (less and better children) practiced in post-Mao China as part of its hegemonic ambitions. China, insists psychologist Geoffrey Miller, not only wants to become the greatest military power, economic, industrial, commercial and cultural 21st century, but also the most biopoderosa with beings healthier and intellectually gifted Earth. Miller, however, confesses to be less concerned with dreams of grandeur of the Chinese than with a Western reaction fueled by ideological prejudices, xenophobia and panic bioethics.
...This year, in advance of President Obama's speech, we're looking at the difficult questions the president will likely ignore on Tuesday. In 2013, what should weigh on American minds?
That's the question posed by Edge.org in 2013. Every year, Edge poses a question to a group of experts from a variety of fields, and judging from this year's responses, Americans have plenty of concerns.
Dr. P. Murali Doraiswamy, professor of psychiatry at Duke University, worries that American mental health diagnoses are blindly exported abroad. Lisa Randall, professor of physics at Harvard University and author of "Warped Passages: Unraveling the Mysteries of the Universe's Hidden Dimensions," worries about the waning investment in research and development.
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.