At the beginning of each year, John Brockman’s Edge poses a question to a long list (192 this year!) of thinkers and authors. The ensuing onslaught of insight is then published for us all to enjoy. This year he asks:
What is your favorite deep, elegant, or beautiful explanation?
Scientists’ greatest pleasure 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”. Historical examples are Kepler’s explanation of complex planetary motions as simple ellipses, Bohr’s explanation of the periodic table of the elements in terms of electron shells, and Watson and Crick’s double helix. Einstein famously said that he did not need experimental confirmation of his general theory of relativity because it “was so beautiful it had to be true.”
The full list is bound to include a few folks you’d like to hear from. Below is the subset of respondents that have crossed through the Long Now orbit:
- Stewart Brand discusses fitness landscapes.
- David Eagleman tells us that the brain isn’t an executive, but rather a team of rivals.
- Brian Eno wraps the whole earth in a bow and plays John Conway’s game of Life.
- Kevin Kelly reminds us we’re all star-stuff.
- Paul Saffo digs into plate tectonics.
- Jared Diamond mixes equal parts sodium, potassium and squid, with electrifying results.
- Freeman Dyson reconciles quantum mechanics & gravity. Or doesn’t? It’s kind of hard to tell.
- George Dyson thinks it’ll be a long time before we’ve got one good explanation for everything.
- Juan Enriquez ruminates on what anthropomorphism illuminates and what it obscures.
- Matt Ridley recalls Crick’s metaphor of life as code.
- Martin Rees warns of another Copernican demotion.
- Clay Shirky takes us beyond memes.
- Nassim Nicholas Taleb explains hormesis.
- Carl Zimmer‘s elegant explanation is his favorite because it is wrong.