Conversations

The Last Unknowns

With a Foreword by Daniel Kahneman
[6.10.19]

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Books-A-Million | Indie Bound | Apple Books


ON EDGE
by Daniel Kahneman

It seems like yesterday, but Edge has been up and running for twenty-two years. Twenty-two years in which it has channeled a fast-flowing river of ideas from the academic world to the intellectually curious public. The range of topics runs from the cosmos to the mind and every piece allows the reader at least a glimpse and often a serious look at the intellectual world of a thought leader in a dynamic field of science. Presenting challenging thoughts and facts in jargon-free language has also globalized the trade of ideas across scientific disciplines. Edge is a site where anyone can learn, and no one can be bored.

The statistics are awesome: The Edge conversation is a "manuscript" of close to 10 million words, with nearly 1,000 contributors whose work and ideas are presented in more than 350 hours of video, 750 transcribed conversations, and thousands of brief essays. And these activities have resulted in the publication of 19 printed volumes of short essays and lectures in English and in foreign language editions throughout the world.

The public response has been equally impressive: Edge's influence is evident in its Google Page Rank of  "8", the same as The Atlantic, The Economist, The New Yorker, The Wall Street Journal, and the Washington Post, in the enthusiastic reviews in major general-interest outlets, and in the more than 700,000 books sold. 

Of course, none of this would have been possible without the increasingly eager participation of scientists in the Edge enterprise. And a surprise: brilliant scientists can also write brilliantly! Answering the Edge question evidently became part of the annual schedule of many major figures in diverse fields of research, and the steadily growing number of responses is another measure of the growing influence of the Edge phenomenon. Is now the right time to stop? Many readers and writers will miss further installments of the annual Edge question—they should be on the lookout for the next form in which the Edge spirit will manifest itself.

What is the secret of Edge’s success? To begin with, the charisma of John Brockman, its founder and leader. Add to that his eclectic but discerning taste in the choice of participants. The two major formats of Edge activities are no less important. The interviews are edited to make the interviewer invisible. Masking the questioner is not new, but remarkable skill is required to elicit both clarity and depth in seamless expositions of the participants’ ideas. Edge interviews read and sound like coherently constructed informal lectures—a surprising feat when the flow of the content is entirely driven by the interviewer’s questions.

The short-essay format of the Edge Annual Question is a daring innovation and a striking success. Apparently, 600-1,000 words is the sweet spot for introducing one big idea. The brevity disciplines the author and allows the reader to grasp the essential point—and to remain hungry for more even as she moves to another essay.

The unifying message in the story of Edge is that ideas matter, and they matter to many. They can be told with elegance, sometimes with wit, never with condescension. There is a large audience eager to learn what scientists in various disciplines are up to, and a large group of scientist-teachers eager to tell their stories. And certainly, there will be more stories.

~~

DANIEL KAHNEMAN is Eugene Higgins Professor of Psychology Emeritus, Princeton University, and author of Thinking, Fast and Slow. He is the winner of the 2013 Presidential Medal of Honor, and the recipient of the 2002 Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences. Daniel Kahneman’s Edge Bio Page.


TABLE OF CONTENTS

Scott Aaronson • Anthony Aguirre • Dorsa Amir • Alun Anderson • Chris Anderson • Ross Anderson • Samuel Arbesman • Dan Ariely • Noga Arikha  • W. Brian Arthur • Scott Atran • Joscha Bach • Mahzarin Banaji • Simon Baron-Cohen • Lisa Feldman Barrett • Andrew Barron • Thomas A. Bass • Mary Catherine Bateson • Gregory Benford • Laura Betzig • Susan Blackmore • Alan S. Blinder • Paul Bloom • Giulio Boccaletti • Ian Bogost • Joshua Bongard • Nick Bostrom • Stewart Brand • Rodney A. Brooks • David M. Buss • Philip Campbell • Jimena Canales • Christopher Chabris • David Chalmers • Leo M. Chalupa • Ashvin Chhabra • Jaeweon Cho • Nicholas A. Christakis • Brian Christian • David Christian • George Church • Andy Clark • Julia Clarke • Tyler Cowen • Jerry A. Coyne • James Croak • Molly Crockett • Helena Cronin • Oliver Scott Curry • David Dalrymple • Kate Darling • Luca De Biase • Stanislas Dehaene • Daniel C. Dennett • Emanuel Derman • David Deutsch • Keith Devlin • Jared Diamond • Chris Dibona • Rolf Dobelli • P. Murali Doraiswamy • Freeman Dyson • George Dyson • David M. Eagleman • David Edelman • Nick Enfield • Brian Eno • Juan Enriquez • Dylan Evans • Daniel L. Everett • Christine Finn • Stuart Firestein • Helen Fisher • Steve Fuller • Howard Gardner • David C. Geary • James Geary • Amanda Gefter • Neil Gershenfeld • Asif A. Ghazanfar • Steve Giddings • Gerd Gigerenzer • Bruno Giussani • Joel Gold • Nigel Goldenfeld  • Rebecca Newberger Goldstein • Daniel Goleman • Alison Gopnik • John Gottman • Jonathan Gottschall • William Grassie • Kurt Gray  • A.C. Grayling • Tom Griffiths • June Gruber • Jonathan Haidt • David Haig • Hans Halvorson • Timo Hannay • Judith Rich Harris • Sam Harris • Daniel Haun • Marti Hearst • Dirk Helbing • César Hidalgo • Roger Highfield • W. Daniel Hillis • Michael Hochberg • Donald D. Hoffman • Bruce Hood • Daniel Hook • John Horgan • Sabine Hossenfelder • Nicholas Humphrey • Marco Iacoboni  • Isabel Behncke Izquierdo • Nina Jablonski • Matthew O. Jackson • Jennifer Jacquet • Dale W. Jamieson • Koo Jeong-A • Lorraine Justice • Gordon Kane • Stuart A. Kauffman • Brian G. Keating • Paul Kedrosky • Kevin Kelly • Gary Klein • Jon Kleinberg • Brian Knutson • Bart Kosko • Stephen M. Kosslyn  • John W. Krakauer • Kai Krause • Andrian Kreye • Coco Krumme • Joseph Ledoux • Cristine H. Legare • Martin Lercher • Margaret Levi • Janna Levin • Andrei Linde • Antony Garrett Lisi • Mario Livio • Seth Lloyd • Tania Lombrozo • Jonathan B. Losos • Greg Lynn • Ziyad Marar • Gary Marcus • John Markoff • Chiara Marletto • Abigail Marsh • Barnaby Marsh • John C. Mather • Tim Maudlin • Annalena Mcafee • Michael Mccullough • Ian Mcewan • Ryan Mckay • Hugo Mercier • Thomas Metzinger • Yuri Milner • Read Montague • Dave Morin • Lisa Mosconi • David G. Myers • Priyamvada Natarajan • John Naughton • Randolph Nesse • Richard Nisbett • Tor Nørretranders • Michael I. Norton • Martin Nowak • Hans Ulrich Obrist • James J. O’donnell • Steve Omohundro • Toby Ord • Tim O’reilly • Gloria Origgi • Mark Pagel • Elaine Pagels • Bruce Parker • Josef Penninger • Irene Pepperberg • Clifford Pickover • Steven Pinker • David Pizarro • Robert Plomin • Jordan Pollack • Alex Poots • Carolyn Porco • William Poundstone • William H. Press • Robert R. Provine • Matthew Putman • David C. Queller • Sheizaf Rafaeli • Vilayanur Ramachandran • Lisa Randall • S. Abbas Raza • Syed Tasnim Raza • Martin Rees • Ed Regis • Diana Reiss • Jennifer Richeson • Gianluigi Ricuperati • Matthew Ritchie • Siobhan Roberts • Andrés Roemer • Phil Rosenzweig • Carlo Rovelli • Douglas Rushkoff • Karl Sabbagh • Todd C. Sacktor • Paul Saffo • Eduardo Salcedo-Albaran • Buddhini Samarasinghe • Scott Sampson • Laurie R. Santos • Robert Sapolsky • Dimitar D. Sasselov • Roger Schank • René Scheu • Maximilian Schich • Simone Schnall • Bruce Schneier • Peter Schwartz • Gino Segre • Charles Seife • Terrence J. Sejnowski • Michael Shermer • Olivier Sibony • Laurence C. Smith • Monica L. Smith • Lee Smolin • Dan Sperber • Maria Spiropulu • Nina Stegeman • Paul J. Steinhardt • Bruce Sterling • Stephen J. Stich • Victoria Stodden • Christopher Stringer • Seirian Sumner • Leonard Susskind • Jaan Tallinn • Timothy Taylor • Max Tegmark • Richard H. Thaler • Frank Tipler • Eric Topol • Sherry Turkle • Barbara Tversky • Michael Vassar • J. Craig Venter • Athena Vouloumanos • D. A. Wallach • Adam Waytz • Bret Weinstein • Eric R. Weinstein • Albert Wenger • Geoffrey West • Thalia Wheatley • Tim White • Linda Wilbrecht • Frank Wilczek • Jason Wilkes • Evan Williams • Alexander Wissner-Gross • Milford H. Wolpoff • Richard Wrangham • Elizabeth Wrigley-Field • Richard Saul Wurman • Victoria Wyatt • Itai Yanai • Dustin Yellin • Eliezer S. Yudkowsky • Dan Zahavi • Anton Zeilinger • Carl Zimmer



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It interprets, it interrogates, it provokes." La Nacion • "One of the purest outlets of intellectual thought on the Web." Süddeutsche Zeitung • "A wonderful opportunity to savor the thoughts of many top scientists and thinkers of the world." El Mundo • "Thrilling." Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung • "The smartest game in town." New Scientist • "The most stimulating English-language reading to be had from anywhere in the world." The Canberra Times • "The brightest minds in the known universe." Vanity Fair • "A formidable anthology of our time's biggest thinkers ... a deeper, richer, more dimensional understanding not only of science, but of life itself." Brain Pickings • "An intellectual treasure trove...best three or four hours of intense, enlightening reading you can do for the new year. Read it now." San Francisco Chronicle • "Open-minded, free ranging, intellectually playful ... an unadorned pleasure in curiosity, a collective expression of wonder at the living and inanimate world ... an ongoing and thrilling colloquium." Ian McEwan, The Telegraph • "Astounding reading." Boston Globe • "A provocative, wiz bang collection." Vanity Fair • "Splendidly enlightened." The Independent • "A jolt of fresh thinking ... a fabulous array of issues." Globe and Mail • "Intriguing ... unapologetic sophistication." The Daily Beast • "When the lightbulb above your head is truly incendiary." Scientific American • "Brilliant ... a eureka moment at the edge of knowledge…a website that will expand your mind." The Sunday Times • "Brockman is a kind of thinker that does not exist in Europe." La Stampa • "These are thoughts to make jaws drop." Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung • "Uplifting ... enthralling." Daily Mail


REMEMBERING MURRAY

[5.28.19]

MURRAY GELL-MANN
September 15, 1929 – May 24, 2019
  

[ED. NOTE: Upon learning of the death of long-time friend, and colleague Murray Gell-Mann, I posed the question below to the Edgies who knew and/or worked with him. —JB]

Can you tell us a personal story about Murray and yourself (about physics, or not)?  


THE REALITY CLUB
Leonard Susskind, George Dyson, Stuart Kauffman, John Brockman, Julian Barbour, Freeman Dyson, Neil Gershenfeld, Paul Davies, Virginia Louise Trimble, Alan Guth, Gino Segre, Sara Lippincott, Emanuel Derman, Jeremy Bernstein, George Johnson, Seth Lloyd, W. Brian Arthur, W. Daniel Hillis, Frank Tipler, Karl Sabbagh, Daniel C. Dennett


[ED. NOTE: For starters, here's a story Murray told about himself when I spent time with him in Santa Fe over Christmas vacation in 2003, excerpted from "The Making of a PhysicistEdge, June 3, 2003—JB]

Uncharacteristically, I discussed my application to Yale with my father, who asked, "What were you thinking of putting down?" I said, "Whatever would be appropriate for archaeology or linguistics, or both, because those are the things I'm most enthusiastic about. I'm also interested in natural history and exploration."

He said, "You'll starve!"

After all, this was 1944 and his experiences with the Depression were still quite fresh in his mind; we were still living in genteel poverty. He could have quit his job as the vault custodian in a bank and taken a position during the war that would have utilized his talents — his skill in mathematics, for example — but he didn't want to take the risk of changing jobs. He felt that after the war he would regret it, so he stayed where he was. This meant that we really didn't have any spare money at all.

I asked him, "What would you suggest?"

He mentioned engineering, to which I replied, "I'd rather starve. If I designed anything it would fall apart." And sure enough when I took an aptitude test a year later I was advised to take up nearly anything but engineering."

Then my father suggested, "Why don't we compromise — on physics?"


Introduction
By Geoffrey West

Murray Gell-Mann was one of the great scientists of the 20th century, one of its few renaissance people and a true polymath. He is best known for his seminal contributions to fundamental physics, for helping to bring order and symmetry to the apparently chaotic world of the elementary particles and the fundamental forces of nature. He dominated the field from the early ‘50s, when he was still in his twenties, up through the late ‘70s. Basically, he ran the show. By modern standards he didn’t publish a lot, but when he did we all hung on every word. It is an amazing litany of accomplishments: strangeness, the renormalization group, color and quantum chromodynamics, and of course, quarks and SU(3), for which he won the Nobel prize in 1969.

He was the Robert Andrews Millikan Professor Emeritus of Theoretical Physics at the California Institute of Technology, a cofounder of the Santa Fe Institute, where he was a Distinguished Fellow; a former director of the J.D. and C.T. MacArthur Foundation; one of the Global Five Hundred honored by the U.N. Environment Program; a former Citizen Regent of the Smithsonian Institution; a former member of the President's Committee of Advisors on Science and Technology; and the author of The Quark and the Jaguar: Adventures in the Simple and the Complex.

Despite his extraordinary contributions to high-energy physics, Murray maintained throughout his life an enduring passion for understanding how the messy world of culture, economies, ecologies and human interaction, and especially language, evolved from the beautifully ordered world of the fundamental laws of nature. How did complexity evolve from simplicity? Can we develop a generic science of complex adaptive systems? In the ‘80s he helped found the Santa Fe Institute as a hub on the academic landscape for addressing such vexing questions in a radically transdisciplinary environment.

Murray Gell-Mann knew, understood and was interested in everything, spoke every language on the planet, and probably those on other planets too, and was not shy in letting you know that he did. He was infamous not just for correcting your facts or your logic, but most annoyingly to some, for correcting how you should pronounce your name, your place of birth, or whatever. Luckily my name is West but that never stopped him from lecturing me many times on the Somerset dialect that I spoke as a young child.

Although he decidedly did not suffer fools and would harshly, sometimes almost cruelly, criticize sloppy thinking or incorrect factual statements, he would intensely engage with anyone regardless of their status or standing if he felt they had something to contribute. I rarely felt comfortable when discussing anything with him, whether a question of physics or lending him money, expecting to be clobbered at any moment because I had made some stupid comment or pronounced something wrong.

Murray could be a very difficult man…but what a mind! However, he loved to collaborate, to discuss ideas, and was amazingly open and inclusive even if he did dominate the proceedings. By the time we had become colleagues at SFI, I had become less and less sensitive to the master’s anticipated criticism or even to his occasional praise; the potential trepidation had pretty much disappeared and our relationship had evolved into friendship and collegiality, just in time for me to become his boss. Negotiating with Murray over a perplexing physics question is one thing, but try negotiating with him over salary and secretarial support, then you’ll really see him in action. To quote Hamlet: "He was a man. Take him for all in all. I shall not look upon his like again."

GEOFFREY WEST is a theoretical physcicist; Shannan Distinguished Professor and Past President, Santa Fe Institute; Author, ScaleGeoffrey West's Edge Bio page.

On Edge

Foreword to "The Last Unknowns"
[5.22.19]

Introduction

On June 4th, HarperCollins is publishing the final book in the Edge Annual Question series entitled The Last Unknowns: Deep, Elegant, Profound Unanswered Questions About the Universe, the Mind, the Future of Civilization, and the Meaning of Life. I am pleased to publish the foreword to the book by Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman, author of Thinking, Fast and Slow, and a frequent participant in Edge events (presenter of the first Edge Master Class on "Thinking About Thinking" in 2007;  co-presenter, with colleagues Richard Thaler and Sendhil Mullainathan, of the second Master Class, "A Short Course in Behavioral Economics" in 2008. Below, please find Daniel Kahneman's foreword to The Last Unknowns and the table of contents of the 282 contributors. Thanks to all for your support and attention in this interesting and continuing group endeavor.   

John Brockman
Editor, Edge


ON EDGE
by Daniel Kahneman

It seems like yesterday, but Edge has been up and running for twenty-two years. Twenty-two years in which it has channeled a fast-flowing river of ideas from the academic world to the intellectually curious public. The range of topics runs from the cosmos to the mind and every piece allows the reader at least a glimpse and often a serious look at the intellectual world of a thought leader in a dynamic field of science. Presenting challenging thoughts and facts in jargon-free language has also globalized the trade of ideas across scientific disciplines. Edge is a site where anyone can learn, and no one can be bored.

The statistics are awesome: The Edge conversation is a "manuscript" of close to 10 million words, with nearly 1,000 contributors whose work and ideas are presented in more than 350 hours of video, 750 transcribed conversations, and thousands of brief essays. And these activities have resulted in the publication of 19 printed volumes of short essays and lectures in English and in foreign language editions throughout the world.

The public response has been equally impressive: Edge's influence is evident in its Google Page Rank of  "8", the same as The Atlantic, The Economist, The New Yorker, The Wall Street Journal, and the Washington Post, in the enthusiastic reviews in major general-interest outlets, and in the more than 700,000 books sold. 

Of course, none of this would have been possible without the increasingly eager participation of scientists in the Edge enterprise. And a surprise: brilliant scientists can also write brilliantly! Answering the Edge question evidently became part of the annual schedule of many major figures in diverse fields of research, and the steadily growing number of responses is another measure of the growing influence of the Edge phenomenon. Is now the right time to stop? Many readers and writers will miss further installments of the annual Edge question—they should be on the lookout for the next form in which the Edge spirit will manifest itself.

Possible Minds: 25 Ways of Looking at AI

Chapter 1 - "Wrong, but More Relevant Than Ever" - on Slate
[2.28.19]

The Human Use of Human Beings, Norbert Wiener’s 1950 popularization of his highly influential book Cybernetics: or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine (1948)investigates the interplay between human beings and machines in a world in which machines are becoming ever more computationally capable and powerful. It is a remarkably prescient book, and remarkably wrong. Written at the height of the Cold War, it contains a chilling reminder of the dangers of totalitarian organizations and societies, and of the danger to democracy when it tries to combat totalitarianism with totalitarianism’s own weapons.

Possible Minds: 25 Ways of Looking at AI

Lightning talks by thirteen “Possible Minders” at the Brattle Theatre—a Harvard Bookstore Event
[2.21.19]

Thursday, February 21, 2019  — A Harvard Bookstore Event

Lightning talks (1 hour, 28 minutes) from thirteen experts: Mary Catherine Bateson, Kate Darling, Peter Galison, Neil Gershenfeld, Alison Gopnik, Caroline Jones, David Kaiser, Seth Lloyd, Hans Ulrich Obrist, Alex Pentland, Steven Pinker, Max TegmarkStephen Wolfram 

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Possible Minds: 25 Ways of Looking at AI

Chapter 21 - "AIs Versus Four-Year-Olds" - First Serial on Smithsonian
[2.22.19]

Everyone’s heard about the new advances in artificial intelligence, and especially machine learning. You’ve also heard utopian or apocalyptic predictions about what those advances mean. They have been taken to presage either immortality or the end of the world, and a lot has been written about both of those possibilities. But the most sophisticated AIs are still far from being able to solve problems that human four-year-olds accomplish with ease. In spite of the impressive name, artificial intelligence largely consists of techniques to detect statistical patterns in large data sets. There is much more to human learning

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