UPDATE: I should have asked readers to answer the question for themselves, so I’m adding that here. Several people already have done that, and I encourage it.
Every year, science-book agent John Brockman, who handles the “trade books” of every well known science writers, as well as running the online intellectual “salon” Edge, asks his stable of writers to give brief answers to a question that someone thought up. The answers are posted online and later compiled into a book. This year’s question is given in the title of the post, and the link to John’s introduction is in the previous sentence. Here it is, and note that John’s definition of science coincides with my notion of “science broadly construed”: a toolkit of ways of establishing provisional truth rather than a formal discipline or a body of knowledge (my emphasis below):
by John Brockman
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.
Many people, even many scientists, have traditionally had a narrow view of science as controlled, replicated experiments performed in the laboratory—and as consisting quintessentially of physics, chemistry, and molecular biology. The essence of science is conveyed by its Latin etymology: scientia, meaning knowledge. The scientific method is simply that body of practices best suited for obtaining reliable knowledge. The practices vary among fields: the controlled laboratory experiment is possible in molecular biology, physics, and chemistry, but it is either impossible, immoral, or illegal in many other fields customarily considered sciences, including all of the historical sciences: astronomy, epidemiology, evolutionary biology, most of the earth sciences, and paleontology. If the scientific method can be defined as those practices best suited for obtaining knowledge in a particular field, then science itself is simply the body of knowledge obtained by those practices.
Science—that is, reliable methods for obtaining knowledge—is an essential part of psychology and the social sciences, especially economics, geography, history, and political science. Not just the broad observation-based and statistical methods of the historical sciences but also detailed techniques of the conventional sciences (such as genetics and molecular biology and animal behavior) are proving essential for tackling problems in the social sciences. 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!
Now there are dozens of answers, but I’d suggest you go to the full compilation of responses and pick out the ones that interest you. Here are but a few that intrigued me—and that I thought people should know about:
Steven Pinker, “The second law of thermodynamics“
Martin Rees, “Multiverse“
Helena Cronin, “Sex“
Rebecca Newberger Goldstein “Scientific realism“
Frank Tipler, “Parallel universes of quantum mechanics“. Tipler asserts that most physicists accept Everett’s notion of an infinite number of parallel universes, and that this notion is indeed true (as he says, “So obvious is Everett’s proof for the existence of these parallel universes, that Steve Hawking once told me that he considered the existence of these parallel universes “trivially true”). Tipler then argues that the many-universe theory (or “truth”) gives us a form of free will:
The free will question arises because the equations of physics are deterministic. Everything that you do today was determined by the initial state of all the universes at the beginning of time. But the equations of quantum mechanics say that although the future behavior of all the universes are determined exactly, it is also determined that in the various universes, the identical yous will make different choices at each instant, and thus the universes will differentiate over time. Say you are in an ice cream shop, trying to choose between vanilla and strawberry. What is determined is that in one world you will choose vanilla and in another you will choose strawberry. But before the two yous make the choice, you two are exactly identical. The laws of physics assert it makes no sense to say which one of you will choose vanilla and which strawberry. So before the choice is made, which universe you will be in after the choice is unknowable in the sense that it is meaningless to ask.
To me, this analysis shows that we indeed have free will, even though the evolution of the universe is totally deterministic. Even if you think my analysis has been too facile—entire books can and have been written on the free will problem—nevertheless, my simple analysis shows that these books are themselves too facile, because they never consider the implications of the existence of the parallel universes for the free will question.
I’m not sure that the idea of parallel universes is as widely accepted as Tipler claims (after all, we need evidence to demonstrate its truth), but even if it is true, I’m not sure if it gives us free will in our own universe, which is the one we inhabit and care about.
Gino Segre, “Gravitational radiation“
Lawrence Krauss, “Uncertainty“
Leo M. Chalupa, “Epigenetics“. This one is deeply misleading, implying that environmentally-induced epigenetic changes can affect our evolution, and dispose of the “nature vs. nurture controversy”. To wit:
What makes epigenetics important, and why is it so much in vogue these days? Its importance stems from the fact that it provides a means by which biological entities, from plants to humans, can be modified by altering gene activity without changes in the genetic sequence. This means that the age-old “nature versus nurture” controversy has been effectively obviated because experience (as well as a host of other agents) can alter gene activity, so the “either/or” thinking mode no longer applies. Moreover, there is now some tantalizing, but still preliminary evidence that changes in gene activity (induced in this case by an insecticide) can endure for a number of subsequent generations [JAC: not true!]. What happens to you today can affect your great, great, great grandchildren!
Sean Carroll, “Bayes’s theorem“
Bart Kosko, “Negative evidence” (think about religion as you read it)
Barnaby Marsh, “Humility” Although listed as a “philanthropy executive” and visiting scholar at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, remember that Marsh used to be an executive vice-president at the John Templeton Foundation. That explains stuff like this:
As we advance in our scientific careers, it is all too easy to feel overconfident in what we know, and how much we know. The same pressures that face us in our everyday life wait to ensnare us in professional scientific life. The human mind looks for certainly, and finds comfort in parsimony. We see what we want to see, and we believe what makes intuitive sense. We avoid the complex and difficult, and the unknown. Just look across the sciences, from biochemistry to ecology, where multiple degrees of freedom make many problems seemingly intractable. But are they? Could new tools of computation and visualization enable better models of the behavior of individuals and systems? The future belongs to those brave enough to be humble about how little we know, and how much there is that is remaining to be discovered.
Scientific humility is the key that opens a whole new possibility space- a space where being unsure is the norm; where facts and logic are intertwined with imagination, intuition, and play. It is a dangerous and bewildering place where all sorts of untested and unjustified ideas lurk. What is life? What is consciousness? How can we understand the complex dynamics of cities? Or even my goldfish bowl? Go there are one can see quickly why when faced be uncertainty, most of us would rather quickly retreat. Don’t. This is the space where amazing things happen.
Yes, we scientists really need that lecture! I’m surprised he didn’t mention God—but then he wouldn’t be able to do that on this site.
Gregory Benford, “Antagonistic pleiotropy“.
Priyamvada Natarajan, “Gravitational lensing“
Nicholas Baumard, “Phenotypic plasticity“
Janna Levin, “The principle of least action“
My own contribution about what people should understand is the idea of “Determinism,” but this won’t be new to readers here.
There are many more contributions at the site, so pick out the ones that most interest you. It’s a good way to start 2017—by stretching your brain. And remember that these essays are intended for nonspecialists interested in science, the “educated layperson.”
I should add about John that his success is due largely to his “nose” for what kind of science the public wants, and a sense of timing that makes him urge authors to write about certain topics at the “proper” time. It was he, for example, who told Richard Dawkins that he needed to write a book about religion for 2006, ergo The God Delusion.