Eternal Search For Wisdom Generates Laws Unto Themselves [1]

[ Fri. Jan. 30. 2004 ]

JOHN Brockman is a New York literary agent specialising in those who practise and write about cutting-edge science and how it is changing the world. His website, [4], has a cult following and is a combination of magazine and online community.

Late last year he asked several hundred thinkers to propose laws about how the world works, some bit of wisdom, some rule of nature, some law-like pattern, either grand or small, that they had noticed in the universe that might be named after them. The results are coming in and they're fascinating.

They're not all about science. Yale University professor of psychology Daniel Gilbert proposed Gilbert's Law: "Happy people are those who do not pass up on an opportunity to laugh at themselves or to make love with someone else. Unhappy people are those who get this backwards." Think about it.

Brian Eno, former member of Roxy Music, music producer and techno-artist, opined that: "Culture is everything we don't have to do." As an explanation, he noted: "We have to clothe ourselves but we didn't have to invent platform shoes or polka-dot bikinis." How true.

But it was science that inspired the most new laws, some distinctly cynical, such as this offering from Kai Kraus, a philosopher and software designer: "93.8127 per cent of all statistics are useless."

Some of the law makers were hard on their chosen profession. "Science can produce knowledge but it cannot produce wisdom," suggested New Scientist  editor-in-chief Alun Anderson.

As for science and communication, according to Anderson, who should know: "A scientist who can speak without jargon is either an idiot or a genius."

Yale University professor of computer science David Gelerntier observed: "Scientists know all the right answers and none of the right questions." Gelerntier's other laws are: "Computers make people stupid," and "One expert is worth a million intellectuals."

Many of us might feel it would be stimulating to be at a dinner party with these people, provided you didn't have to contribute. But one man from Australia who'd feel at home would be Allan Snyder, professor of several things at the Australian National University. He has suggested: "Most creative science is wrong, but the deception ultimately leads to the benefit of mankind." Think Freud. Another of Snyder's laws is: "Everyone steals from everyone else, but they do so unconsciously. This has evolved for our very survival. It maximises the innovative power of society." He obviously doesn't teach undergraduates.

Leo Chapula is a professor of ophthalmology and neurobiology and has served on many research funding panels. He noted something that will surprise many lay people: "Don't underestimate the importance of fashion in doing science. There is a price to pay for originality, and every working scientist knows this."

There were more thoughtful comments on life outside science, including this one from University of California, Berkeley, associate professor Marti Hearst: "A public figure is often condemned for an action that is taken unfairly out of context but nevertheless reflects, in a compelling and encapsulated manner, an underlying truth about that person." Take that, Tony Blair.

Artist and lecturer Art Kleiner has noticed that: "Every organisation operates on behalf of the perceived needs and priorities of some core group of key people. This purpose will trump every other loyalty, including those to shareholders, employees, customers and other constituents."

Philosopher Daniel C. Dennett has perhaps explained the enormous sales of Mike Moore's books with this observation: "On any important topic we tend to have a dim idea of what we hope to be true, and when an author writes the words we want to read, we tend to fall for it, no matter how shoddy the arguments."

Author Mike Godwin noted the great truth that: "As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches one (that is, becomes certain)."

Brockman's project is a lot of fun, although if you tried to live by some of the laws thrown up by it you'd go mad.

As philanthropist Chris Anderson said: "Humans are engineered to seek for laws, whether or not they're actually there."


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