From a broad array of thinkers come answers to the question: “What is your favorite deep, elegant, or beautiful explanation?”
Every year, Brockman, a literary agent who presides over the online salon Edge, poses a challenging question to the diverse community of Edge contributors. The question posed in 2012, which asked responders to identify some simple, nonobvious idea that explains a complex set of phenomena, was suggested by Steven Pinker. The replies come from such familiar names as Jared Diamond, Richard Dawkins, Matt Ridley and Eric Kandel; a few surprising ones, such as Brian Eno and Alan Alda; and many who are lesser known or unknown to the public but are established and influential in their fields. What remains unclear is why these particular answers were selected for publication. All answers are brief, most just two or three pages. Some of the respondents’ choices seem obvious—Darwin on the theory of evolution by natural selection and Freud on the unconscious—while others—the double-helix structure of DNA, the germ theory of disease, the Gaia hypothesis of planet Earth, the law of unintended consequences—will also already be familiar to many readers. Perhaps most surprising is neuroscientist Ernst Pöppel’s contribution: 20 linked haikus (“What is my problem? / I don’t need explanations! / I’m happy without!”). Not all are as entertaining, however, and general readers may struggle with the vocabulary of special fields—e.g., “Metarepresentations Explain Human Uniqueness” or “Hormesis Is Redundancy.” The sheer number of contributors and the broad scope of the book ensure that most readers will find topics to pique their interest, but that same feature means that many will find themselves flipping pages quickly. Other notable contributors include Sean Carroll, George Dyson, Clay Shirky, Stewart Brand, A.C. Grayling and Katinka Matson.
A smorgasbord of ideas, best when judiciously sampled.