This Explains Everything: A book review by Bob Morris

Posted on: February 18th, 2013 by bobmorris

This ExlpainsThis Explains Everything: Deep, Beautiful, and Elegant Theories of How the World Works
John Brockman, Editor
Harper Perennial (2013)

How and why “deep, beautiful, and elegant theories of how the world works” can nourish and enlighten our lives

Many of those who purchase and then begin to read this book will learn, for the first time, about Edge.org, a website offering an abundance of resources. John Brockman is the Editor of This Will Make You Smarter (2012) and This Explains Everything (2013). He is also the Editor and Publisher of Edge. As he explains, its purpose is to “arrive at the edge of the world’s knowledge, seek out the most complex and sophisticated minds, put them in a room together, and have them ask each other the questions they are asking themselves.”

He goes on to suggest, “Edge is a Conversation: Edge is different from the Algonquin Roundtable or Bloomsbury Group, but it offers the same quality of intellectual adventure. Closer resemblances are the early seventeenth-century Invisible College, a precursor to the Royal Society. Its members consisted of scientists such as Robert Boyle, John Wallis, and Robert Hooke. The Society’s common theme was to acquire knowledge through experimental investigation. Another inspiration is The Lunar Society of Birmingham, an informal club of the leading cultural figures of the new industrial age — James Watt, Erasmus Darwin, Josiah Wedgewood, Joseph Priestly, and Benjamin Franklin.”

Last year, those involved with Edge were asked to respond to a question also proposed by Steven Pinker: ‘What scientific concept would improve everyone’s cognitive toolkit?” Here’s The Edge Question 2012: “WHAT IS YOUR FAVORITE DEEP, ELEGANT, OR BEAUTIFUL EXPLANATION?”

There were more than 200 online responses that were then reviewed before Brockman produced an edited selection. “In the spirit of Edge, the contributions presented here [in This Explains Everything] embrace scientific thinking in the 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.” Brockman then adds, “The common thread is that a simple and nonobvious idea is proposed as the explanation for a diverse and complicated set of phenomena.”

Here in Dallas near the downtown area, there is a Farmer’s Market at which a few merchants offer slices of fresh fruit as samples. In that spirit, I now offer a few brief excerpts from contributions to The Edge Question 2012:

o Matt Ridley after realizing that DNA is a code: “Never has a mystery seemed more baffling in the morning and an explanation more obvious in the afternoon.” (Page 4)

o Richard Dawkins: “Natural selection is an averaging computer, detecting redundancies – repeat patterns – in successive worlds (successive through millions of generations) in which the species has survived (averaged over all members of the sexually reproducing species.” (8)

o Aubrey de Grey: “Reflective equilibrium gets my vote for the most elegant and beautiful explanation, because of its immense breadth of applicability and also its lack of dependence on other controversial positions. Most important, it rises above the question of cognitivism, the debate over whether there is anything such as objective morality.” (15+16)

o Joel Gold: “The dark matter of the mind, the unconscious, has the greatest psychic gravity. Ignore the dark matter of the universe and anomalies appear. Ignore the dark matter of the mind and our irrationality is inexplicable.” (23)

o Paul Steinhardt: “More recently, colleagues and I have found evidence that quasi crystals may have been among the first minerals to have formed in the solar system…Perhaps there is a lesson to be learned: While elegance and simplicity are often useful criteria for judging theories, they can sometimes mislead us into thinking we are right when we are actually infinitely wrong.” (33)

0 Keith Devlin: “And why is self-organization so beautiful to my aesthetic self? Because if complex adaptive systems don’t require a blueprint, they don’t require a Blueprint Maker. If they require lightning bolts, they don’t require some hurtling lightning bolts.” (98)

o Howard Gardner on the importance of individuals: “In a planet occupied now by nearly 7 billion inhabitants, I am amazed by the difference one human being can make. Think of classical music without Mozart or Stravinsky; of painting without Caravaggio, Picasso, or Pollock; of drama without Shakespeare or Beckett.” (137)

o Christine Finn: “I admire this explanation of cultural relativity [‘dirt is a matter of place’], by the anthropologist Mary Douglas, for its clean lines and tidiness. I like its beautiful simplicity, the way it illuminates dark corners of misreading, how it highlights the counterconventional. Poking about in the dirt is exciting, and irreverent. It’s about taking what is out if bounds and making it relevant. Douglas’s explanation of ‘dirt’ makes us question the very boundaries we’re pushing.” (168)

o Lisa Randall: “The beauty of science – in the long run –is its lack of subjectivity. So answering the question ‘What is your favorite, deep, or beautiful explanation’ can be disturbing to a scientist, since the only objective words in the question are ‘what,’ ‘is,’ ‘or,’ and in an ideal world) ‘explanation.” (212)

o Michael I. Norton: “Randomized experiments are by no means a perfect tool for explanation. Some important questions simply do not lend themselves to randomized experiments, and the method in the wrong hands can cause harm…But their increasingly widespread application speaks to their flexibility in informing us how things work and why they work that way.” (333)

These are but a few of hundreds of observations that caught my eye. I realize that no brief commentary such as mine can possibly do full justice to the scope of material that is provided in this volume but I hope that I have at least suggested why I think so highly of it. I also highly recommend the aforementioned This Will Make You Smarter and, especially, checking out the ever-increasing wealth of resources at Edge.org. Thank you, John Brockman, for the thought leadership you and your Edge colleagues continue to provide. Bravo!

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