Science: The Seven Ideas for 2017 [1]

[ Wed. Jan. 4. 2017 ]

Theories that will change our everyday life in the year just begun according to 206 great researchers and intellectuals from around the world


Imagine taking over 200 international thinkers, including writers, artists and many, many scientists of all disciplines. Place them in front of a challenging question and collect their responses on a web site [5]. It seems difficult to find a better way to greet with understanding the arrival of 2017. To do so we thought the literary agent John Brockman with his Edge Foundation. The ritual is repeated every year and this time the question was the following: “What scientific term or concept ought to be more widely known?” That is, being able to choose freely a bud in the casket of knowledge, which you would show humanity at the beginning of this year. What piece of knowledge do you want to put metaphorically in your pocket, to walk toward the future with a greater awareness of the world? And do it with without pedantry and jargon. According to the novelist Ian McEwan, one of the 206 intellectuals invited to participate, the beauty of this game is that among the rules of engagement there is the invitation to be open-minded, free ranging, intellectually playful, to indulge in the unadorned pleasure in curiosity.

Scientific ideas often remain confined among insiders, but sometimes science goes mainstream, and the most versatile and fortunate intuitions breach into the general culture, enriching it, and changing it in turn.

This happened to the memes of Richard Dawkins, to the paradigm jumps of Thomas Kuhn, to Schrödinger’s Cat, just to name some examples. Among the many ideas suggested this year, and candidates to become viral, a recurring theme is that of the peculiarities of scientific thought that would deserve to be exported to other fields of human knowledge and action is that science is a master of failure, critical spirit, intellectual honesty. Sometimes it delivers uncomfortable truths, as it reminds us of the famous phrase attributed to the wife of the Bishop of Birmingham on Darwin’s theory of evolution. Commenting on the embarrassing kinship between men and monkeys she apparently said: "Hopefully it is not true and, if it is true, that you do not know around".

The 206 responses to the 2017 question will eventually be published in a book. Here we have seven contributions, selected because they are particularly surprising and sometimes even useful in everyday life. Their merit? They warn of prejudices, educate complexity, cultivate wonder.

Confirmation Bias [6] (Brian Eno), The Second Law of Thermodynamics [7] (Steven Pinker), Deliberate Ignorance [8] (Gerd Gigerenzer), Included Middle [9] (Melanie Swan), Effective Theory [10] (Lisa Randall), Multiverse [11] (Martin Rees)

[Click for Italian original [4]]