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Author Topic:   2017: What Scientific Term or Concept Ought to be More Widely Known?
Posts: 3427
From: Phoenix
Joined: 11-06-2006
Member Rating: 4.9

Message 1 of 2 (796806)
01-04-2017 6:53 PM

John Brockman has been posing an Annual Question to friends and clients for 20 years. 2017 is one of the best.

Edge: 2017 Annual Question


Richard Dawkins' “meme” became a meme, known far beyond the scientific conversation in which it was coined. It’s one of a handful of scientific ideas that have entered the general culture, helping to clarify and inspire.


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.

The scientific method is simply that body of practices best suited for obtaining reliable knowledge.

Science is nothing more nor less than the most reliable way of gaining knowledge about anything, whether it be the human spirit, the role of great figures in history, or the structure of DNA.

It is in this spirit of Scientia that Edge, on the occasion of its 20th anniversary, is pleased to present the Edge Annual Question 2017. Happy New Year!

—John Brockman, Editor, January 1, 2017

Over 200 responses are presented from all over the world. As a literary agent specializing in scientific literature Brockman’s client/friends list reads like a “Who’s Who” of top science talent in every field. The answers these luminaries present are not just interesting but also enlightening.

First, though, read Brockman’s own entry in the intro to his question: Scientia. This, imho, is one of the best, simple and most concise definitions of “Science” and the scientific method.

Good Stuff. I encourage all to spend the time reading through the entries. You will recognize many of the people and, though you may disagree with some, your views will be changed and strengthened by many of these.

These are excerpts, teasers, from submitted responses.

Janna Levin

Professor of Physics and Astronomy, Barnard College of Columbia University; Author, Black Hole Blues and Other Songs from Outer Space (forthcoming, March 29, 2016)

The Principle of Least Action

All the matter forces—weak, electromagnetic, and strong—can be unified in principle (though there are some hitches). Gravity stands apart and defiant so that we have not yet realized the greatest ambition of theoretical physics: the theory of everything, the one physical law that unifies all forces, that pushes and prods the universe to our current complexity. But that’s not the point.

The point is that a fundamental law is expressible as one mathematical sentence. We move from that single sentence to the glorious Rube Goldberg machine of our cosmos by exploiting my favorite principle, that of least action.

Steven Pinker

Johnstone Family Professor, Department of Psychology; Harvard University; Author, The Sense of Style

The Second Law of Thermodynamics

Why the awe for the Second Law? The Second Law defines the ultimate purpose of life, mind, and human striving: to deploy energy and information to fight back the tide of entropy and carve out refuges of beneficial order. An underappreciation of the inherent tendency toward disorder, and a failure to appreciate the precious niches of order we carve out, are a major source of human folly.

Lisa Randall

Physicist, Harvard University; Author, Warped Passages, Knocking on Heaven's Door, and Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs: The Astounding Interconnectedness of the Universe

Effective Theory

Effective theory is a valuable concept when we ask how scientific theories advance, and what we mean when we say something is right or wrong. Newton’s laws work extremely well. They are sufficient to devise the path by which we can send a satellite to the far reaches of the Solar System and to construct a bridge that won’t collapse. Yet we know quantum mechanics and relativity are the deeper underlying theories. Newton’s laws are approximations that work at relatively low speeds and for large macroscopic objects. What’s more is that an effective theory tells us precisely its limitations—the conditions and values of parameters for which the theory breaks down.

Jared Diamond

Professor of Geography, University of California Los Angeles; Author, The World Until Yesterday

Common Sense

You’re much more likely to hear “common sense” invoked as a concept at a cocktail party than at a scientific discussion. In fact, common sense should be invoked more often in scientific discussions, where it is sometimes deficient and scorned. Scientists may string out a detailed argument that reaches an implausible conclusion contradicting common sense. But many other scientists nevertheless accept the implausible conclusion, because they get caught up in the details of the argument.

David Christian

Director, Big History Institute and Distinguished Professor in History, Macquarie University, Sydney; Author, Maps of Time: An Introduction to Big History

The Noösphere

The idea of the “Noösphere,” or “the sphere of mind,” emerged early in the 20th century. It flourished for a while, then vanished. It deserves a second chance.

In a 1945 essay, Vernadsky described the Noösphere as: “a new geological phenomenon on our planet. In it for the first time, man becomes a large-scale geological force.” As one of many signs of this profound change, he noted the sudden appearance on earth of new minerals and purified metals: “that mineralogical rarity, native iron, is now being produced by the billions of tons. Native aluminum, which never before existed on our planet, is now produced in any quantity.” In the same essay, published in the year of his death, and fifteen years before Yuri Gagarin became the first human to enter space, Vernadsky wrote that the Noösphere might even launch humans “into cosmic space.”

Rebecca Newberger Goldstein

Philosopher, Novelist; Recipient, 2014 National Humanities Medal; Author, Plato at the Googleplex; 36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction

Scientific Realism

Has science discovered the existence of protons and proteins, neurons and neutrinos? Have we learned that particles are excitations of underlying quantum fields and that the transmission of inherited characteristics is accomplished by way of information-encoding genes? Those who answer no (as opposed to dunno) probably aren’t unsophisticated science deniers. More likely they’re sophisticated deniers of scientific realism.

Matthew O. Jackson

Professor of Economics, Stanford University, Santa Fe Institute, CIFAR


Even if you do not know homophily by name, it is something you have experienced throughout your life. In whatever elementary school you went to, in any part of the world, girls tended to be friends with girls, and boys with boys. If you went to a high school that had people of more than one ethnicity, then you saw it there. Yes, you may have been friends with someone of another ethnicity, but such friendships are the exception rather than the rule. We see strong homophily by age, ethnicity, language, religion, profession, caste, and income level.

As simple and familiar as it is, homophily is very much a scientific concept: It is measurable and has predictable consequences. In fact, it is so ubiquitous, that it should be thought of as a fundamental scientific concept. But, it is the darker side of homophily that makes it such an important scientific concept.

Michael Shermer

Publisher, Skeptic magazine; Monthly Columnist, Scientific American; Presidential Fellow, Chapman University; Author, The Moral Arc

Negativity Bias

One of the most understated effects in all cognitive science is the psychology behind why negative events, emotions, and thoughts trump by a wide margin those that are positive.

In religious traditions, possession by demons happens quickly compared to the exorcism of demons, which typically involves long and complex rituals; by contrast in the positive direction, becoming a saint requires a life devoted to holy acts, which can be erased overnight by a single immoral act. In the secular world, decades of devoted work for public causes can be erased in an instant with an extra-marital affair, financial scandal, or criminal act.

Why is negativity stronger than positivity? Evolution.

And 200 more.

Edited by AZPaul3, : No reason given.

Edited by AZPaul3, : Screaming CAPS title

Replies to this message:
 Message 2 by Tanypteryx, posted 01-04-2017 8:09 PM AZPaul3 has acknowledged this reply

Posts: 1346
From: Oregon, USA
Joined: 08-27-2006
Member Rating: 6.4

Message 2 of 2 (796810)
01-04-2017 8:09 PM
Reply to: Message 1 by AZPaul3
01-04-2017 6:53 PM

Thanks! This is really interesting. I had never heard of it before.

What if Eleanor Roosevelt had wings? -- Monty Python

One important characteristic of a theory is that is has survived repeated attempts to falsify it. Contrary to your understanding, all available evidence confirms it. --Subbie

If evolution is shown to be false, it will be at the hands of things that are true, not made up. --percy

This message is a reply to:
 Message 1 by AZPaul3, posted 01-04-2017 6:53 PM AZPaul3 has acknowledged this reply

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