EDGE 2017 question and 206 responses by invited contributors

The EDGE 2017 question:

What scientific term or concept ought to be more widely known?

You can find the 206 responses by the invited contributors at the following address (the EDGE web site is a little slow, the initial load of this web page may take few seconds):

https://www.edge.org/responses/what-scientific-term-or concept-ought-to-be-more-widely-known

Few quotations:

“Quantum theory is complicated, but reality as a whole is even more complicated.  In dealing with it, people can and do take many different approaches: scientific, legal, moral, artistic, religious, and others. Each of those approaches can be useful or rewarding in different circumstances. But they involve processing the full complexity of reality in radically different ways, which are often deeply incompatible (for an example, see below). Complementarity is the wisdom to recognize that fact, and to welcome it.” – Frank Wilczek

“The great promise of the Internet was that more information would automatically yield better decisions. The great disappointment is that more information actually yields more possibilities to confirm what you already believed anyway. ” Brian Eno

“As you probably know, there’s an age-old debate about whether things are ultimately made out of particles, or whether things are excitations or waves in some continuous medium. (In fact, the philosopher Immanuel Kant found this debate so tedious that he declared it irresolvable in principle.) But many of us were told that the wave-particle debate was solved by quantum physics, which says that matter has both particle-like and wave-like aspects. Then things got a bit weird when Niels Bohr said, “there is no quantum reality,” and when Eugene Wigner said, “there is no reality without an observer.” What the hell is going on here? Has matter disappeared from physics? Has physics really told us that mind-independent matter doesn’t exist?” – Hans Halvorson

“But do not despair. Note what has been happening here. The description of matter as particles was helpful, but not exactly correct. The description of matter as a wavefunction is even more accurate, but it has limitations. Our best current description of matter is in terms of quantum fields, but the quantum fields are not yet the thing in itself. At each stage, our description of matter has become more nuanced, more widely applicable, and more useful. Will this process come to an end? Will we ever arrive at the one true description of the basic constituents of the universe? Who’s to say? But as long as each generation outdoes the previous one, what more could we want? “- Hans Halvorson

“Peirce himself was a cantankerous curmudgeon. For that reason he never enjoyed stable employment, living in part off of the donations of friends, such as William James. But his semiotics has brought intellectual delight and employment to hundreds of academics since the late 19th century, when he first proposed his theory. His work on semiotics is worthy of being much more widely-known as relevant to current debates. It is far more than a quaint relic of 19th century reflection.” – Daniel L. Everett

“Recursion resides at the core of all intelligence. Recursion requires the ability to reference an algorithm or procedure, and keep the reference distinct from the contents. And this capacity to refer is a centerpiece of the way that organisms form models of the world around them and even of themselves. Recursion is a profoundly computational idea and lies at the heart of Godel’s incompleteness theorem and the philosophical consequences that flow from that work. Turing’s own work on computable numbers requires recursion at its center. It’s an open question about how recursion is implemented biologically, but one could speculate that it has been discovered by evolution many times.” – Read Montague

“Sword makers learned how to anneal the metal, a process in which they first heat it to a high temperature and then cool it down very slowly. Throughout the slow cooling, the sword maker continually taps the metal, imparting enough energy to the individual cells so that they can jump up from their temporary basin into a higher energy state and then drop down to realign with their neighbors into a communally more stable, lower energy state. The tap paradoxically increases the energy of the cell, moving it up and out of the basin and farther away from the true valley, which is ostensibly bad; but in so doing the tap allows the cell to emerge from the basin and seek out the lower energy state. As the metal cools, as the tapping continues, more and more of the cells align, and because the metal is cooler, the tapping is less able to disturb cells from their newer and more stable positions. In physics and mathematics one often has to find the lowest energy or minimum state of some complicated function of many variables. For very complicated functions, that can’t be done analytically via a formula; it requires an algorithmic search. An algorithm that blindly tried to head downwards could get stuck in a local minimum and never find the global minimum. Simulated annealing is a metaphorical kind of annealing, carried out in the algorithmic search for the minima of such complicated functions. When the descent in the simulated annealing algorithm takes you to some minimum, you sometimes take a chance and shake things up at random, in the hope that by sometimes shaking yourself out of the local minimum and temporarily moving higher, (which is not where you ultimately want to be), you may then find your way to a lower and more stable global minimum. As time passes, the algorithm decreases the probability of the shake-up, which corresponds to the cooling of the metal. Simulated annealing employs judicious volatility in the hope that it will be beneficial. In an impossibly complex world, we should perhaps shun temporary stability and instead be willing to tolerate a bit of volatility in order to find a greater stability thereafter.” = Emanuel Derman

“Epigenetics is a term that has been around for more than a century, but its usage in the public domain has increased markedly in recent years. In the last decade or so there have been dozens of articles in newspapers (notably the New York Times) and magazines, such as the New Yorker, devoted to this topic. Yet when I queried ten people working in the research office of a major university, only one had a general sense of what the term meant, stating that it deals with “how experience influences genes.” Close enough, but the other nine had no idea, despite the fact that all were college graduates, two were lawyers and four others had graduate degrees. Not satisfied by the results of this unscientific sample, I asked an associate dean of a leading medical school how many first-year medical students knew the meaning of this term. He guessed that the majority would know, but at a subsequent lecture when he did a polling of fifty students, only about a dozen could provide a cogent definition. So there you have it, another example of a lack of knowledge by the educated public of a hot topic among the scientific establishment.” – Leo M. Chalupa

“Within the infinite space of computer programs is a special subset of code: programs that, when executed, output that program itself. In other words, these are a kind of self-replicating program; when you run them, they yield themselves. These short programs are often referred to as quines, after the philosopher Willard Van Orman Quine, based on the term from Douglas Hofstadter’s Gödel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid.” – Samuel Arbesman

“‘Non ergodic’ is a fundamental but too little known scientific concept. Non-ergodicity stands in contrast to “ergodicity. “Ergodic” means that the system in question visits all its possible states. In Statistical Mechanics this is based on the famous “ergodic hypothesis, which, mathematically, gives up integration of Newton’s equations of motion for the system. Ergodic systems have no deep sense of “history.” Non-ergodic systems do not visit all of their possible states. In physics perhaps the most familiar case of a non-ergodic system is a spin glass which “breaks” ergodicity and visits only a tiny subset of its possible states, hence exhibits history in a deep sense. Even more profoundly, the evolution of life in our biosphere is profoundly “non-ergodic” and historical. The universe will not create all possible life forms. This, together with heritable variation, is the substantial basis for Darwin, without yet specifying the means of heritable variation, whose basis Darwin did not know. Non-ergodicity gives us history.” – Stuart A. Kauffmann

“The Navier-Stokes equations date from 1822 and apply Newton’s Second Law of Motion to viscous fluids. The range of applications is vast—in weather prediction, aircraft and car design, pollution and flood control, hydro-electric architecture, in the study of climate change, blood flow, ocean currents, tides, turbulence, shock waves and the representation of water in video games or animations.” – Ian McEwan

“The human brain is built to say “no”; instead of “yes.” We remember the negative. This “negativity bias,” as psychologists call it, most likely evolved millions of years ago—perhaps primarily as an adaptive response to strangers who wandered into one’s neighborhood. If our forebears greeted these foreigners with open arms, they might be slaughtered as they smiled. Long has natural selection favored those who responded negatively to the one malevolent intruder, rather than positively to myriad friendly guests. Even Ardi, a female relative who roamed the grass and forests of today’s Ethiopia some 4.4 million years ago, had more to gain by fixating on the negative, rather than the positive. Today neuroscientists know where this negativity bias is located in the brain—largely in a neural region of the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, behind your forehead. This brain region becomes more active as you think negative thoughts. But as you overlook the negative and focus on the positive, activity in this brain area reduces—enabling you to idealize another via what psychologists calls ‘positive illusions.'” – Helen Fisher

“If you asked one hundred people on the street if they understand how a refrigerator works, most would respond, yes, they do. But ask them to then produce a detailed, step-by-step explanation of how exactly a refrigerator works and you would likely hear silence or stammering. This powerful but inaccurate feeling of knowing is what Leonid Rozenblit and Frank Keil in 2002 termed, the illusion of explanatory depth (IOED), stating, ‘Most people feel they understand the world with far greater detail, coherence, and depth than they really do.'” – Adam Waytz

“Since the Brainstem’s activity is related to basic physiological and homeostatic functions, its activity is permanent, allowing the continuum construct of the self. Although our external appearance changes during our lifetime, our internal organs and biological functions remain mostly unchanged; if our consciousness is therefore grounded on those constant biological functions, it will also remain mostly constant. ” – Eduardo Salcedo-Albaran

“We know that when particles move around in spacetime in patterns obeying certain principles, they give rise to substrate-independent phenomena—e.g. waves and computations. We’ve now taken this idea to another level: If the information processing itself obeys certain principles, it can give rise to the higher level substrate-independent phenomenon that we call consciousness. This places your conscious experience not one but two levels up from the matter. No wonder your mind feels non-physical! We don’t yet know what principles information processing needs to obey to be conscious, but concrete proposals have been made that neuroscientists are trying to test experimentally. However, one lesson from substrate-independence is already clear: we should reject carbon-chauvinism and the common view that our intelligent machines will always be our unconscious slaves. Computation, intelligence and consciousness are patterns in the spacetime arrangement of particles that take on a life of their own, and it’s not the particles but the patterns that really matter! Matter doesn’t matter.” – Max Tegmark

“In the eighteen years since Bender and Boettcher’s 1998 paper, experimentalists have created PT lasers, PT superconducting wires, PT NMR and PT diffusion experiments to mention just a few validations of their theory.  As PT symmetry has matured, it has inspired the creation of exotic metamaterials that have properties that allow us to control light in new ways. The academic community, initially skeptical of such a fundamental change in quantum theory, has warmed to the idea of PT symmetry. Over 200 researchers from around the world have published scholarly papers on PT symmetry. The literature now extends to more than 2000 articles, many in top journals such as Nature, Science and Physical Review Letters.” – Daniel Hook

“Evaluating alternative possibilities ought to be better known because it’s a tool for better thinking. It’s a tool that doesn’t require fancy training or fancy equipment (beyond the fancy equipment we already contain in our heads). What it does require is willingness to confront uncertainty, and boldly exploring the space of discarded or unformulated alternatives. That’s a kind of bravery that scientists should admire.” – Tania Lombrozo

“Our universe is unreturnable, so our only choice is to accept this gift and use it to the best of our abilities.” – Andrei Linde

PS: I also updated my post where I maintain the links to questions and responses from other years


About Suresh Emre

I have worked as a physicist at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory and the Superconducting Super Collider Laboratory. I am a volunteer for the Renaissance Universal movement. My main goal is to inspire the reader to engage in Self-discovery and expansion of consciousness.
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