Wednesday, January 18, 2012

The 2012 Edge Question

John Brockman is, among other things, a literary agent with a large stable of famous scientists. He runs a website called The Edge and every year he asks a question and solicits responses from his clients and admirers. This year's question is 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."


Since this question is about explanation, answers may embrace scientific thinking in the broadest sense: as the most reliable way of gaining knowledge about anything, including other fields of inquiry such as philosophy, mathematics, economics, history, political theory, literary theory, or the human spirit. The only requirement is that some simple and non-obvious idea explain some diverse and complicated set of phenomena.

Here are some of my favorites ....

My Favorite Annoying Elegant Explanation: Quantum Theory by Raphael Bousso
Life Is a Digital Code by Matt Ridley
Plate Tectonics Elegantly Validates Continental Drift by Paul Saffo
Watson and Crick Explain How DNA Carries Genetic Information by Gary Klein
Atomism: Reconciling Change with No-Change by Marcelo Gleiser
The 19th Century Explanation of the Remarkable Connection Between Electricity And Magnetism by Lawrence M. Krauss
We Are Stardust by Kevin Kelly
The Principle of Empiricism, or See For Yourself by Michael Shermer

Here are some of my not-so-favorites ....

Fitness Landscapes by Stewart Brand
Sexual Conflict Theory by David M. Buss
Pascal's Wager Tim O'Reilly
Epigenetics by Helen Fisher
Evolutionarily Stable Strategies by S. Abbas Raza
The Destructive Wrath of the General Purpose Computer by Jordan Pollack
Subverting Biology by Patrick Bateson
Sex At Your Fingertips by Simon Baron-Cohen
The Epidemic of Obesity, Diabetes and "Metabolic Syndrome:" Cell Energy Adaptations in a Toxic World? by Beatrice Golomb
Why We Feel Pressed for Time by Elizabeth Dunn
Why Some Sea Turtles Migrate by Daniel C. Dennett
Evolutionary Genetics Explains The Conflicts of Human Social Life by Steven Pinker
The Faurie-Raymond Hypothesis by Jonathan Gottschall
The Gaia Hypothesis by Scott Sampson
The Elegant Robert Zajonc by Richard Nisbett


  1. It's pretty obvious from the first sentence why you disliked Helen Fisher's essay.

    "To me, epigenetics is the most monumental explanation to emerge in the social and biological sciences since Darwin proposed his theories of Natural Selection and Sexual Selection."

    No discussion of deacetylase, global demethylation events throughout development, or the important distinction between heritability on the cellular and organismal level.

    Fisher: " Indeed, in 2010, scientists wrote in Science magazine that epigenetic systems are now regarded as "heritable, self-perpetuating and reversible."

    The complete quote from the 2010 Science piece: "So what is epigenetics? An epigenetic system should be heritable, self-perpetuating, and reversible (Bonasio et al., p. 612). Whether histone modifications (and many noncoding RNAs) are epigenetic is debated; it is likely that relatively few of these modifications or RNAs will be self-perpetuating and inherited."

  2. I also liked the essay by Raphael Bousso and saved this passage to a collection of quotes I am compiling:
    'Many great theories in physics carry within them a seed of their demise. This seed is a beautiful thing. It hints at profound discoveries and conceptual revolutions still to come. One day, the beautiful explanation that has just transformed our view of the Universe will be supplanted by another, even deeper insight. Quantitatively, the new theory must reproduce all the experimental successes of the old one. But qualitatively, it is likely to rest on novel concepts, allowing for hitherto unimaginable questions to be asked and knowledge to be gained'.

  3. Not sure why you should dislike the response on Pascal's Wager. If you read the response, O'Reilly dispenses with the religious baggage and focusses on the core idea, which is decision theory. And decision theory (and its soulmate, Bayesianism) really is an elegant theory.

  4. My favorite is Bart Kosko's story about how the Sun will, within a few billion years, become a red giant and incinerate the earth. And still later on, that the fate of the universe is heat death, as all atoms decay, leaving only quantum noise.

    I like this story because it is true, and understandable to almost everone, but also because I know that there are a great many close-minded people who just cannot accept that this is our Universe's fate. That they cannot accept that science, and science alone, has allowed us to know how our world, and even the Universe, ends.

  5. I'd like to second "Eratosthenes' measurement of the Earth's circumference". Lucid thinking at its best.