Sun, Jan 22, 2012 - Page 9 News List

Leading thinkers list ‘deep, elegant and beautiful explanations’

In its annual question, intellectuals told Edge magazine their favorite explanations ranged from evolution to ant intelligence, ‘deep time’ to universal disorder

By Alok Jha  /  The Guardian

Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection, Einstein’s reinterpretation of the cosmos through general relativity and the idea that we live in one of an infinity of universes are some of the most elegant and beautiful human ideas, according to a group of the world’s leading thinkers.

These ideas, and almost 200 others, were the subjects of a series of short essays collated by the Web magazine Edge, which invites people including scientists, artists, journalists, historians and philosophers to address a grand question every year.

For this year, Edge editor and literary agent John Brockman posed the seemingly simple question: “What is your favorite deep, elegant or beautiful explanation?”

The responses included established scientific ideas and theorems, maxims for the way societies operate, as well as considerations of what it means for something to be beautiful in the first place.

Richard Dawkins, the Oxford University biologist and author, led the charge in support of Darwin’s theory, which he said won hands down in terms of elegance because it had the power to explain much while assuming little.

“The ratio of the huge amount that it explains (everything about life: its complexity, diversity and illusion of crafted design) divided by the little that it needs to postulate (non-random survival of randomly varying genes through geological time) is gigantic,” Dawkins wrote. “Never in the field of human comprehension were so many facts explained by assuming so few.”

Frank Tipler, a professor of mathematical physics at Tulane University in New Orleans, chose the idea that there are an infinity of universes parallel to our own, containing individuals exactly like us.

“There are an infinity of Frank Tiplers, individuals exactly like me, each of whom has written an essay entitled ‘Parallel Universes,’ each of which is word-for-word identical to the essay you are now reading, and each of these essays is now being read by individuals who are exactly identical to you, the reader. And more: There are other universes which are almost identical to ours, but differ in minor ways: for example, universes in which you the reader (and I the writer!) really did marry that high school sweetheart — and universes in which you didn’t if you did in this universe,” Tipler wrote.


The collected intelligence of ants, and self-organization in general, impressed Stanford University neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky. Watch a single ant, and it does not make much sense as it walks in one direction, suddenly changing to another for no obvious reason.

However, a colony of ants is something special.

“Specialized jobs, efficient means of exploiting new food sources, complex underground nests with temperature regulated within a few degrees. And critically, there’s no blueprint or central source of command — each individual ants has algorithms for their behaviors,” Sapolsky wrote.

Out of this emerges a highly efficient colony.

A dilemma raised in 1980 by the UK academic David Collingridge was the chosen topic for technology writer Evgeny Morozov.

“Collingridge’s basic insight was that we can successfully regulate a given technology when it’s still young and unpopular and thus probably still hiding its unanticipated and undesirable consequences — or we can wait and see what those consequences are, but then risk losing control over its regulation,” Morozov wrote.

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