Summer Reading: Highlights From the Edge Archive

"Deliciously creative, the variety astonishes. Intellectual skyrockets of stunning brilliance. Nobody in the world is doing what Edge is doing...the greatest virtual research university in the world.
— Denis Dutton, Founding Editor, Arts & Letters Daily

[ED NOTE: It’s summer and a good time to reflect on twenty years of Edge. Each week through the rest of the season, we will revisit five highlights from the Edge archives worthy of your time and attention. — JB]

What is the self? How does the activity of neurons give rise to the sense of being a conscious human being? Even this most ancient of philosophical problems, I believe, will yield to the methods of empirical science. It now seems increasingly likely that the self is not a holistic property of the entire brain; it arises from the activity of specific sets of interlinked brain circuits. But we need to know which circuits are critically involved and what their functions might be. It is the "turning inward" aspect of the self—its recursiveness—that gives it its peculiar paradoxical quality.


I invited a group of cosmologists, experimentalists, theorists, and particle physicists. Stephen Hawking came. We had three Nobel laureates: Gerard 't Hooft, David Gross, Frank Wilczek; well-known cosmologists and physicists such as Jim Peebles at Princeton, Alan Guth at MIT, Kip Thorne at Caltech, Lisa Randall at Harvard; experimentalists, such as Barry Barish of LIGO, the gravitational wave observatory; we had observational cosmologists, people looking at the cosmic microwave background; we had Maria Spiropulu from CERN, who's working on the Large Hadron Collider—which, a decade ago, people wouldn't have thought it was a probe of gravity, but now due to recent work in the possibility of extra dimensions it might be.


We know there's a law of nature—he second law of thermodynamics—that says that disorderliness grows with time. Is there another law of nature that governs the complexity of what happens? That talks about multiple layers of the structures and how they interact with each other? Embarrassingly enough, we don't even know how to define this problem yet. We don't know the right quantitative description for complexity. This is very early days. This is Copernicus, not even Kepler, much less Galileo or Newton. This is guessing at the ways to think about these problems.


I'm interested in bending the edges of the spectrum to make the abstract and the concrete hit one another more directly.


Azra Raza
[January 1, 2014]

It's time to let go of the mouse models—at least, as surrogates for bringing drugs to the bedside. Remember what Mark Twain said: "What gets us into trouble is not what we don't know; it's what we know for sure that just ain't so."


Today, what you want is to have resilience and agility, and you want to be able to participate in, and interact with the disruptive things. Everybody loves the word "disruptive innovation." Well, how and where does disruptive innovation happen? It doesn't happen in the big planned R&D labs; it happens on the edges of the network. Most important ideas, especially in the consumer Internet space, but more and more now in other things like hardware and biotech, you're finding it happening around the edges.


Neil Gershenfeld
[January 23, 2015]

Today, you can send a design to a fab lab and you need ten different machines to turn the data into something. Twenty years from now, all of that will be in one machine that fits in your pocket. This is the sense in which it doesn't matter. You can do it today. How it works today isn't how it's going to work in the future but you don't need to wait twenty years for it. Anybody can make almost anything almost anywhere.              


With Big Data we can now begin to actually look at the details of social interaction and how those play out, and are no longer limited to averages like market indices or election results. This is an astounding change. The ability to see the details of the market, of political revolutions, and to be able to predict and control them is definitely a case of Promethean fire—it could be used for good or for ill, and so Big data brings us to interesting times. We're going to end up reinventing what it means to have a human society.


One of the fundamental questions here is, is extinction a good thing? Is it "nature's way?" And if it's nature's way, who in the world says anyone should go about changing nature's way? If something was meant to go extinct, then who are we to screw around with it and bring it back? I don't think it's really nature's way. I think that the extinction that we've seen since man is 99.9 percent caused by man.


I'm increasingly thinking that this idea that modernity puts us in a world without meaning—philosophers have banged on about this for a century-and-a-half—may be completely wrong. We may be living in an intellectual building site, where a new story is being constructed. It's vastly more powerful than the previous stories because it's the first one that is global. It's not anchored in a particular culture or a particular society. This is an origin story that works for humans in Beijing as well as in Buenos Aires. 

It's a global origin story, and it sums over vastly more information than any early origin story. This is very, very powerful stuff. It's full of meaning. We're now at the point where, across so many domains, the amount of information, of good, rigorous ideas, is so rich that we can tease out that story. 


Jennifer Jacquet
[November 18, 2014]

Shaming, in this case, was a fairly low-cost form of punishment that had high reputational impact on the U.S. government, and led to a change in behavior. It worked at scale—one group of people using it against another group of people at the group level. This is the kind of scale that interests me. And the other thing that it points to, which is interesting, is the question of when shaming works. In part, it's when there's an absence of any other option. Shaming is a little bit like antibiotics. We can overuse it and actually dilute its effectiveness, because it's linked to attention, and attention is finite. With punishment, in general, using it sparingly is best. But in the international arena, and in cases in which there is no other option, there is no formalized institution, or no formal legislation, shaming might be the only tool that we have, and that's why it interests me. 



Nathan Myhrvold
[January 23, 1997]

Julian Barbour
[August 15, 1999]

Ernst Mayr
[December 31, 1999]

Jared Diamond 
[June 6, 1999]

Steven Pinker 
[September 27, 2011]