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What’s your law?

John Brockman has asked his Edgy band of scientists, futurists, writers, and philosophers about “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”, like those of Newton, Moore, or Murphy. Here are the results.

The more general of such laws are the most interesting because they can enrich our understanding of diverse subject areas and can be very instructive in how they fail. I think maybe this is what Alan Alda was getting at with his First and Second Laws of Laws:

1. All laws are local.
2. A law does not know how local it is.

Here’s a few of my other favorite laws from the list, general and not:

Pimm’s First Law: No language spoken by fewer than 100,000 people survives contact with the outside world, while no language spoken by more than one million people can be eliminated by such contact.

Gopnik’s Gender Curves: The male curve is an abrupt rise followed by an equally abrupt fall. The female curve is a slow rise to an extended asymptote. The areas under the curves are roughly equal. These curves apply to all activities at all time scales (e.g. attention to TV programs, romantic love, career scientific productivity). (see the graphs)

Morgan’s Second Law: To a first approximation all appointments are canceled.

Pöppel’s Universal: We take life 3 seconds at a time. Human experience and behaviour is characterized by temporal segmentation. Successive segments or “time windows” have a duration of approx. 3 seconds.

Brand’s Pace Law: In haste, mistakes cascade. With deliberation, mistakes instruct.

Kai’s Example Dilemma: A good analogy is like a diagonal frog.

Rushkoff’s Law: A religion will increase in social value until a majority of its members actually believe in it—at which point the social damage it causes will increase exponentially as long as it is in existence.

Humphrey’s Law of the Efficacy of Prayer: In a dangerous world there will always be more people around whose prayers for their own safety have been answered than those whose prayers have not.

Minksy’s Second Law: Don’t just do something. Stand there.

Sterling’s Corollary to Clarke’s Law: Any sufficiently advanced garbage is indistinguishable from magic.

Reader comments

Swami PremJan 11, 2004 at 2:46PM

This is a very interesting post. Thanks for keeping the comments open on this one. I'd like to see what your other readers have to say, whether they come up with their own or comment on the ones in this post.

Matthew TrentacosteJan 11, 2004 at 3:00PM

Tipler's Law of Unilimited Progress

The laws of physics place no limits on progress, be it scientific, economic, cultural, or intellectual. In fact, the laws of physics require the knowledge and wealth possessed by intelligent beings in the universe to increase without limit, this knowledge and wealth becoming literally infinite by the the end of time...

Looks like someone needs to read up on infinity. Nothing currently finite can ever become infinite. Also, there are hard limits, see H. J. Bremermann's paper Optimization Through Evolution and Recombination which shows based on Heisenberg Uncertainty and such a gram of mass can process at most (2 ×10^47) bits per second. There are whole classes of problems that exist today which are impossible to solve computationally due to this.

DrisJan 11, 2004 at 4:17PM

Minksy's Second Law is lifted verbatim from the commentary in the NIV Student's Bible. ...or maybe the other way around?

Scott JohnsonJan 11, 2004 at 4:23PM

I really like Kai's Example Dilemma. We need more laws like that. ;-)

FirasJan 11, 2004 at 5:25PM

Minksy's Second Law: Don't just do something. Stand there.

Is this so clever that I don't get it, or so simple that it's useless (simple version: 'stand there--just do it')?

Plus, I agree that Kai's Example Dilemma is the one that'll probably be stuck in my head for a long time.

Kip IngramJan 11, 2004 at 6:30PM

I'm in the process of reading The Next Fifty Years, which is a collection of essays edited by Brockman. Quite an interesting collection of works. I'm planning to review each essay on my website Kip Ingram Online; so far I've only posted a review of the first essay. I'm afraid I've read ahead a little. :-)

JosephJan 11, 2004 at 8:33PM

Jason, I'm not sure that your bracketed qualifications of Gopnik's Gender Curve ("of the ability to learn") is intended in his original. He seems to be applying it directly to attention, romance, and productivity, rather than just the learning of these things. Perhaps I'm wrong -- it's a little ambiguous -- but that struck me as the charm of it.

Rich LaffertyJan 11, 2004 at 8:37PM

Hm. You've added "[of the ability to learn]" to Gopnik's Gender Curves, but that's not what he means, since a few lines later he explicitly states, "These curves apply to all activities at all time scales".

(For instance, the example of TV attention span is specifically not about learning, for instance; there, it's male vs. female behavior with remote control in hand; the example of career productivity is, well, about productivity, not learning.)

Perhaps you've confused it with his Learning Curve, which is a different entry?

JosephJan 11, 2004 at 8:40PM

And when I said his, and he, I meant hers, and she. (Sorry Alison!)

jkottkeJan 11, 2004 at 10:34PM

Joseph and Rich, I think you may be right. I took my annotations out of Gopnik's Law. (Kottke's Law...keep your annotations out of other people's laws?)

NonaJan 12, 2004 at 12:10AM

Don't just do something. Stand there. ---> i like this one

mptJan 12, 2004 at 1:32AM

Steven Garrity, your Law of Congregational Intelligence appears to be a variation on Kaa’s Law. (My own variation is “As a group gets larger, its average intelligence decreases, but its total intelligence increases.”)

ollicleJan 12, 2004 at 4:03AM

The essence of the profound is obvious

Richard EarneyJan 12, 2004 at 4:06AM

Goodhart's Law
As soon as the government attempts to regulate any particular set of financial assets, these become unreliable as indicators of economic trends.

Sod's Law
Anything that can go wrong; will.

and Earn's Law © (I thought I'd get in first)
Lay any two computer cables side by side and next time they are observed, even if left untouched, they will be tangled!!!!

mikeJan 12, 2004 at 9:36AM

re: minsky's second law ((Dris says: Minksy's Second Law is lifted verbatim from the commentary in the NIV Student's Bible. ...or maybe the other way around?))

Banksy ( - UK graffiti stencil artist) has used this phrase as well.

OneEruJan 12, 2004 at 11:30AM

We are part of everything we observe yet can never observe everything we are part of.

NonaJan 12, 2004 at 12:01PM

Nonas law: Once youre born you start dying

sandorJan 12, 2004 at 2:14PM

Not my law, but one I enjoy:

Hofstadter's Law: It always takes longer than you expect, even when you take into account Hofstadter's Law.

Coined by Douglas Hofstadter, in his book Godel, Escher, Bach.

SUJan 12, 2004 at 3:59PM

Upton's Law of Innovation: Technologies which facilitate their own repurposing are the soul of innovation.

Todd W.Jan 12, 2004 at 4:28PM

If I read Gopnik's graphs correctly, there is a specific end to the male curve while the female curve trails off into infinity or, presumably, death. If the areas under the curves are equal in every endeavor, this insinuates that no female could ever match the height of the male curve. Assuming height is a positive (good) measurement, I'm not sure that's the point she (or I) wished to make, but, nevertheless, there it is.

This thread is closed to new comments. Thanks to everyone who responded.