Each year, Edge has asked a group of scientists, philosophers, musicians, writers, and designers a simple but provocative question and collects the answers on their website. Past questions have included:
What do you think about machines that think? (2015)
What have you changed your mind about? Why? (2008)
What do you believe true even though you cannot prove it? (2005)
What is the most important invention in the past two thousand years? (1999)
This year, the question is: What scientific term or concept ought to be more widely known?
Of all the scientific terms or concepts that ought to be more widely known to help to clarify and inspire science-minded thinking in the general culture, none are more important than “science” itself.
Many people, even many scientists, have traditionally had a narrow view of science as controlled, replicated experiments performed in the laboratory-and as consisting quintessentially of physics, chemistry, and molecular biology. The essence of science is conveyed by its Latin etymology: scientia, meaning knowledge. The scientific method is simply that body of practices best suited for obtaining reliable knowledge.
Here are some of the responses. Alison Gopnik chose “Life History”:
“Life history” is the term biologists use to describe how organisms change over time-how long an animal lives, how long a childhood it has, how it nurtures its young, how it grows old. Human life history is weird. We have a much longer childhood than any other primate-twice as long as chimps, and that long childhood is related to our exceptional learning abilities. Fossil teeth suggest that this long childhood evolved in tandem with our big brains-we even had a longer childhood than Neanderthals. We also rapidly developed special adaptations to care for those helpless children-“pair-bonding” and “alloparents.” Fathers and unrelated kin help take care of human children, unlike our closest primate relatives.
And we developed another very unusual life history feature-post-menopausal grandmothers. The killer whale is the only other animal we know that outlives its fertility. The human lifespan was expanded at both ends-longer childhood and a longer old age. In fact, anthropologists have argued that those grandmothers were a key to the evolution of learning and culture. They were crucial for the survival of those helpless children and they also could pass on two generations worth of knowledge.
Jessica Flack chose “Coarse-Graining”:
In physics a fine-grained description of a system is a detailed description of its microscopic behavior. A coarse-grained description is one in which some of this fine detail has been smoothed over.
Coarse-graining is at the core of the second law of thermodynamics, which states that the entropy of the universe is increasing. As entropy, or randomness, increases there is a loss of structure. This simply means that some of the information we originally had about the system has become no longer useful for making predictions about the behavior of a system as a whole. To make this more concrete, think about temperature.
Temperature is the average speed of particles in a system. Temperature is a coarse-grained representation of all of the particles’ behavior — the particles in aggregate. When we know the temperature we can use it to predict the system’s future state better than we could if we actually measured the speed of individual particles. This is why coarse-graining is so important — it is incredibly useful. It gives us what is called an effective theory. An effective theory allows us to model the behavior of a system without specifying all of the underlying causes that lead to system state changes.
And physicist Nigel Goldenfeld chose “The Scientific Method” itself:
There’s a saying that there are no cultural relativists at thirty thousand feet. The laws of aerodynamics work regardless of political or social prejudices, and they are indisputably true. Yes, you can discuss to what extent they are an approximation, what are their limits of validity, do they take into account such niceties as quantum entanglement or unified field theory (of course they don’t). But the most basic scientific concept that is clearly and disturbingly missing from today’s social and political discourse is the concept that some questions have correct and clear answers. Such questions can be called “scientific” and their answers represent truth. Scientific questions are not easy to ask. Their answers can be verified by experiment or observation, and they can be used to improve your life, create jobs and technologies, save the planet. You don’t need pollsters or randomized trials to determine if a parachute works. You need an understanding of the facts of aerodynamics and the methodology to do experiments.
There are 200 more contributions from bold-faced names like Richard Dawkins, Hanna Levin, Brian Eno, Kevin Kelly, and Danny Hillis. Have fun!
Businessweek is 85 years old and to celebrate, they’ve listed the 85 most disruptive ideas created during that time. They include kitty litter, Air Jordans, information theory, refrigeration, the jet engine, and the Polaroid camera.
Polaroids were the first social network. You’d take a picture, and someone would say, “I want one, too,” so you’d give it away and take another. People shared Polaroids the way they now share information on social media. Of course, it was more personal, because you were sharing with just one person, not the entire world.
I met Andy Warhol in the ’70s at the Whitney Museum and started doing projects with him because he loved my photographs. He’d never had a pal who was a photographer, so I was his guru, showing him what cameras to buy, what pictures to take. When Polaroid came out with its SX-70 model, the company sent big boxes of film and cameras to the Factory, which was at 860 Broadway (it’s now a Petco). Andy loved Polaroid. Everything was “gee whiz”; it was brand-new. So immediate. I took photos of him with his new toy.
Using a pair of medical innovations as an example, Atul Gawande writes about why different kinds of innovations spread at different speeds and how you might be able to speed up the “slow ideas”.
This has been the pattern of many important but stalled ideas. They attack problems that are big but, to most people, invisible; and making them work can be tedious, if not outright painful. The global destruction wrought by a warming climate, the health damage from our over-sugared modern diet, the economic and social disaster of our trillion dollars in unpaid student debt-these things worsen imperceptibly every day. Meanwhile, the carbolic-acid remedies to them, all requiring individual sacrifice of one kind or another, struggle to get anywhere.
The global problem of death in childbirth is a pressing example. Every year, three hundred thousand mothers and more than six million children die around the time of birth, largely in poorer countries. Most of these deaths are due to events that occur during or shortly after delivery. A mother may hemorrhage. She or her baby may suffer an infection. Many babies can’t take their first breath without assistance, and newborns, especially those born small, have trouble regulating their body temperature after birth. Simple, lifesaving solutions have been known for decades. They just haven’t spread.
If you’re interested, Gawande wrote extensively on anesthesia and antiseptics in The New England Journal of Medicine.
The NY Times Magazine has published their Year in Ideas issue for 2009. Lots of good stuff in there. Before I got sidetracked with family obligations (Minna!), I planned on pitching the magazine’s editors a couple of ideas I noticed this year:
The Neverending Wake. We got a preview of what death in the celebrity age (more) is going be like when a cluster of notable people passed away this summer. How will we think about death when someone we know or admire dies every day for the rest of our lives?
Machine Gun Photography. Just as the introduction of the machine gun fundamentally changed warfare, so the affordable high-resolution digital video camera will change photography. Now you don’t have to wait for exactly the right moment for the perfect shot; just take 10 minutes of HD video and find the best shots later. Photography was always really about the editing anyway, right?
An interesting new publication: The New York Review of Ideas.
In bad times and in good, New York City is the idea capital of the world. Here is where commerce intersects with what Lionel Trilling described as “the bloody crossroads where literature and politics meet.” The New York Review of Ideas will report on that intersection, telling the stories that will shape the future of American culture.
Ooh, and check out that ever-present blue border. (via snarkmarket)
From the tail end of an article on a global guest-worker program, a quote by economist Lant Pritchett on how people perceive game-changing ideas over time.
Pritchett says he has a model of how game-changing ideas are received over time, and it works something like this: “Crazy. Crazy. Crazy. Obvious.”
And then the piece just leaves us hanging on that gem. It appears that Pritchett hasn’t written too much about that particular notion, but I did find a slide in a presentation he did that puts it a slightly different way:
silly, controversial, progressive, then obvious
Sounds about right. (via sam arbesman)
Update: Several people sent in Mahatma Gandhi’s related quote:
First they ignore you, then they ridicule you, then they fight you, then you win.
Update: The Gandhi quote is disputed. A similar quote appears in the transcript of a 1914 US trade union address:
And, my friends, in this story you have a history of this entire movement. First they ignore you. Then they ridicule you. And then they attack you and want to burn you. And then they build monuments to you. And that, is what is going to happen to the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America.
Remember the story about the vending machine for crows in the NY Times Magazine’s Year in Ideas issue from December? Turns out that there were all sorts of things wrong with that story.
In addition, the article said that Klein was working with graduate students at Cornell University and Binghamton University to study how wild crows make use of his machine, which does exist. Klein did get a professor at Binghamton to help him try it out twice in Ithaca, with assistance from a Binghamton graduate student, and it was not a success. Corvid experts who have since been interviewed have said that Klein’s machine is unlikely to work as intended.
Update: I had forgotten…Klein did a talk at TED last year about his crow vending machine. I wonder if there’s a retraction forthcoming from there as well. (thx, michael)
Time has a list of ten ideas that are changing the world right now. This is not a typical mindless list (e.g. green energy! um…more green energy)…there’s some good stuff here. Jobs Are The New Assets asserts now that making money with money (i.e. stocks and property) while you sit on your ass all days doesn’t fly, your job is your main source of income and financial stability.
All the while, we blissfully ignored a little concept economists like to call human capital. The cognition you’ve got up there in your head — your education and training — it’s worth something. We can extract value not just from our homes and our portfolios but from ourselves as well. The mechanism for extracting that value? A job. “The income you earn from working is like the stream of interest income you might get from owning a bond,” says Johns Hopkins University economist Christopher Carroll. “Think of it as a dividend on your human wealth.”
Michael Lewis recently said something similar in an interview for Big Think.
When you think of making money, think of what you do for a living, not the financial markets.
Amortality is my favorite entry on the list. It’s a more general version of the Grups theory put forth in New York magazine three years ago. An amortal person is someone who lives a similar lifestyle all throughout their life, from their teens to their 80s.
For all the optimism about how science may prolong life, mice and humans keep turning up their toes. No matter how much the government bullies and cajoles, amortals rarely make adequate provision for their final years. Yet even as faltering amortals strain the public purse, so their determination to wring every drop out of life brings benefits to the private sector. They prop up the tottering music industry, are lifelong consumers of gadgets and gizmos, keep gyms busy and colorists in demand. From their youth, when they behave as badly as adults, to their dotage, when they behave as badly as youngsters, amortals hate to be pigeonholed by age.
The NY Times has posted their annual Year in Ideas collection for 2008, packaged this year in an “interactive feature”, which is Esperanto for “no permalinks”. A favorite so far in paging through is Tokujin Yoshioka’s Venus Natural Crystal Chair, a piece of furniture grown in mineral water.
Update: Permalinks are a go. I repeat, permalinks are a go. Here’s the one for the crystal chair. (thx, everyone)
In last week’s New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell talked about inventions, scientific discovery, and how it’s possible to “manufacture” ideas.
In 1999, when Nathan Myhrvold left Microsoft and struck out on his own, he set himself an unusual goal. He wanted to see whether the kind of insight that leads to invention could be engineered. He formed a company called Intellectual Ventures. He raised hundreds of millions of dollars. He hired the smartest people he knew. It was not a venture-capital firm. Venture capitalists fund insights — that is, they let the magical process that generates new ideas take its course, and then they jump in. Myhrvold wanted to make insights — to come up with ideas, patent them, and then license them to interested companies.
Myhrvold believes that scientific discovery is largely “in the air” and inevitable, not the product of individual genius. Given the thesis of the piece, as Kevin Kelly notes, it’s odd that Gladwell tells the story of this new idea as not one that was “in the air” but as stories like these are traditionally told, through the insight of one man, Nathan Myhrvold.
The NY Times Magazine is out with its annual Year in Ideas issue. 2007 was the year of green — green energy, green manufacturing, and even a green Nobel Prize for Al Gore — and environmentalism featured heavily on the Times’ list. But I found some of the other items on the list more interesting.
Ambiguity Promotes Liking. Sometimes the more you learn about a person or a situation, the more likely you are to be disappointed:
Why? For starters, initial information is open to interpretation. “And people are so motivated to find somebody they like that they read things into the profiles,” Norton says. If a man writes that he likes the outdoors, his would-be mate imagines her perfect skiing companion, but when she learns more, she discovers “the outdoors” refers to nude beaches. And “once you see one dissimilarity, everything you learn afterward gets colored by that,” Norton says.
I’m an optimistic pessimist by nature; I believe everything in my life will eventually average out for the better but I assume the worst of individual situations for the reasons proposed in the article above. That way, when I assume something isn’t going to work out, I’m rarely disappointed.
The Best Way to Deflect an Asteroid involves a technique called “mirror bees”.
The best method, called “mirror bees,” entails sending a group of small satellites equipped with mirrors 30 to 100 feet wide into space to “swarm” around an asteroid and trail it, Vasile explains. The mirrors would be tilted to reflect sunlight onto the asteroid, vaporizing one spot and releasing a stream of gases that would slowly move it off course. Vasile says this method is especially appealing because it could be scaled easily: 25 to 5,000 satellites could be used, depending on the size of the rock.
What an elegant and easily implemented solution. But Armageddon and Deep Impact would have been a whole lot less entertaining using Dr. Vasile’s approach.
The Cat-Lady Conundrum. More than 60 million Americans are infected with Toxoplasma gondii, a parasite that most people get from their cats. And it’s not exactly harmless:
Jaroslav Flegr, an evolutionary biologist at Charles University in the Czech Republic, is looking into it. He has spent years studying Toxo’s impact on human behavior. (He found, for example, that people infected with Toxo have slower reflexes and are 2.5 times as likely to get into car accidents.)
This may explain why I can’t seem to get past “Easy” on Guitar Hero.
The Honeycomb Vase is actually made by bees. One unintended consequence of having a vase made out of beeswax is that flowers last longer in it:
Libertiny is convinced that flowers last longer in them, because beeswax contains propolis, an antibacterial agent that protects against biological decay. “We found out by accident,” he explains. “We had a bouquet, which was too big for the beeswax vase, so we put half of the flowers in a glass vase. We noticed the difference after a week or so.
Prison Poker. This is a flat out brilliantly simple idea:
[Officer Tommy Ray] made his own deck of cards, each bearing information about a different local criminal case that had gone cold. He distributed the decks in the Polk County jail. His hunch was that prisoners would gossip about the cases during card games, and somehow clues or breaks would emerge and make their way to the authorities. The plan worked. Two months in, as a result of a tip from a card-playing informant, two men were charged with a 2004 murder in a case that had gone cold.
The Gomboc is the world’s first Self-Righting Object.
It leans off to one side, rocks to and fro as if gathering strength and then, presto, tips itself back into a “standing” position as if by magic. It doesn’t have a hidden counterweight inside that helps it perform this trick, like an inflatable punching-bag doll that uses ballast to bob upright after you whack it. No, the Gomboc is something new: the world’s first self-righting object.
More information is available on the Gomboc web site.
You can order a Gomboc for €80 + S&H.
Update: The Gomboc is available for sale but it doesn’t come cheap. The €80 version is basically a paperweight with a Gomboc shape carved out of it. It’s €1000+ for a real Gomboc, which is ridiculous. (thx, nick)