From Darwinian evolution to the idea that personality is largely shaped by chance, the favorite theories of the world’s most eminent thinkers are as eclectic as science itself.
Every January, John Brockman, the impresario and literary agent who presides over the online salon Edge.org, asks his circle of scientists, digerati and humanities scholars to tackle one question.
In previous years, they have included “how is the internet changing the way you think?” and “what is the most important invention in the last 2,000 years?”
This year, he posed the open-ended question “what is your favorite deep, elegant or beautiful explanation?”
The responses, released at midnight on Sunday, provide a crash course in science both well known and far out-of-the-box, as admired by the likes of astronomer Royal Martin Rees, physicist Freeman Dyson and evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins.
Several of the nearly 200 scholars nominated what are arguably the two most powerful scientific theories ever developed. “Darwin’s natural selection wins hands down,” argues Dawkins, emeritus professor at Oxford University.
“Never in the field of human comprehension were so many facts explained by assuming so few,” he says of the theory that encompasses everything about life, based on the idea of natural selection operating on random genetic mutations.
Einstein’s theory of relativity, which explains gravity as the curvature of space, also gets a few nods. As theoretical physicist Steve Giddings of University of California, writes, “This central idea has shaped our ideas of modern cosmology (and) given us the image of the expanding universe.”
General relativity explains black holes, the bending of light and “even offers a possible explanation of the origin of our Universe - as quantum tunneling from ‘nothing’,” he writes.
Terrence Sejnowski, a computational neuroscientist at the Salk Institute, extols the discovery that the conscious, deliberative mind is not the author of important decisions such as what work people do and who they marry. Instead, he writes, “an ancient brain system called the basal ganglia, brain circuits that consciousness cannot access”, pull the strings.
Running on the neurochemical dopamine, they predict how rewarding a choice will be - if I pick this apartment, how happy will I be? - “evaluate the current state of the entire cortex and inform the brain about the best course of action,” explains Sejnowski.
Only later do people construct an explanation for their choices, he said in an interview, convincing themselves incorrectly volition and logic were responsible.
To neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky of Stanford University, the most beautiful idea is emergence, in which complex phenomena almost magically come into being from simple components.