now, into the breach comes John Brockman, the literary agent
and gadfly, whose online scientific salon, Edge.org, has become
one of the most interesting stopping places on the Web. He begins
every year by posing a question to his distinguished roster
of authors and invited guests. Last year he asked what sort
of counsel each would offer George W. Bush as the nation's top
science adviser. This time the question is "What's your law?"
Brockman, a New York literary agent, writer and impresario of
the online salon Edge, figures it is time for more scientists
to get in on the whole naming thing...As a New Year's exercise,
he asked scores of leading thinkers in the natural and social
sciences for "some bit of wisdom, some rule of nature,
some law-like pattern, either grand or small, that you've noticed
in the universe that might as well be named after you."
Brockman has posted an intriguing question on his Edge website.
Brockman advises his would-be legislators to stick to the scientific
answers to the rule of law. Nature. Science. Society. All of
it obeys a set of codes...It's the thinker's challenge to put
words to these unwritten rules. Do so, and he or she may go
down in history. Like a Newton or, more recently, a Gordon Moore,
who in 1965 coined the most cited theory of the technological
age, an observation on how computers grow exponentially cheaper
and more powerful... Recently, John Brockman went looking for
thinkers of the 'Third Culture,' whether they, like Dawkins, study
evolutionary biology at Oxford or, like Alan Alda, portray scientists
on Broadway, know no taboos. Everything is permitted, and nothing
is excluded from this intellectual game."
responses are generally written in an engaging, casual style
(perhaps encouraged by the medium of e-mail), and are often
fascinating and thought - provoking.... These are all wonderful,
are interested in thinking smart,'" declares Brockman
on the site, "we are not interested in the anesthesiology
ARENA: Edge has been bringing together the world's foremost
scientific thinkers since 1998, and the response to September
11 was measured and uplifting."
Questions Have Disappeared?"
to this year's question are deliciously creative... the variety
astonishes. Edge continues to launch intellectual skyrockets
of stunning brilliance. Nobody in the world is doing what Edge
a year, John Brockman of New York, a writer and literary agent
who represents many scientists, poses a question in his online
journal, The Edge, and invites the thousand or so people on
his mailing list to answer it."
Is Today's Most Important Unreported Story?"
assume for a second that Ted Koppel, Charlie Rose and the editorial
high command at the New York Times have a handle on all
the pressing issues of the day.... a lengthy list of profound,
esoteric and outright entertaining responses.
Questions Are You Asking Yourself?"
site that has raised electronic discourse on the Web to a whole
new level.... Genuine learning seems to be going on here."
"To mark the first anniversary of [Edge], Brockman
posed a question: 'Simply reading the six million volumes in the
Widener Library does not necessarily lead to a complex and subtle
mind," he wrote, referring to the Harvard library. "How to avoid
the anesthesiology of wisdom?' "
to often lively, sometimes obscure and almost always ambitious
Law of Programming
Program development ends when the program does
what you expect it to do—whether it is correct
God is evolving. So if you're an atheist, you'd
better hope that the arrow of time only goes in
Poundstone's First Law
Independent discoverers of great ideas emerge
in proportion to the time spent looking for them.
The history of science is a fractal, with co-discoverers
emerging like crinkles in the Norwegian coastline.
The fractal dimension of scientific discovery
increases with time. Where people once marveled
at the simultaneous discovery of calculus, we
now marvel when a Nobel science prize goes to
kinds exist only in human minds.
Human differences and human similarities are infinite,
therefore any assortment of people can be grouped
together according to a shared trait or divided
according to unshared traits. Our borders of race,
ethnicity, nation, religion, class etc. are not,
then, facts about the world. They are facts about
belief. We should look at minds, not kinds, if
we want to understand this phenomenon.
Science which seems to confirm human-kind beliefs
is always welcome; science that undermines human-kind
belief is always unpopular.
To put it more cynically, if your work lets people
believe there are "Jewish genes'" (never
mind that the same genes are found in Palestinians)
or that criminals have different kinds of brains
from regular people (never mind that regular people
get arrested all the time), or that your ancestors
5,000 years ago lived in the same neck of the
woods as you (never mind the whereabouts of all
your other ancestors), well then, good press will
be yours. On the other hand, if your work shows
how thoroughly perceptions of race, ethnicity,
and other traits change with circumstances, well,
good luck. Common sense will defend itself against
future is merely the past with a twist—and
Law of Indispensable Ignorance
The world cannot function without partially ignorant
The ideal of omniscience fuels the many disciplines
and theories that envision godlike humans. Much
of cognitive science, and Homo economics as well,
assume the superiority of a mind with complete,
veridical representations of the outside world that
remain stable and available throughout a lifetime.
The Law of Indispensable Ignorance, in contrast,
says that complete information is neither realistic
nor generally desirable. What is desirable are partially
(not totally) ignorant people.
Justice is blindfolded; jurors are not supposed
to know the criminal record of the defendant; trial
consultants hunt for "virgin minds" rather
than academics as jurors. Academics in turn review
papers anonymously under the veil of ignorance about
the authors; trust in experiments demands double-blind
procedures; economic fairness encourages sealed
bids. The efficient market hypothesis implies that
knowledge of future stock prices is impossible,
and the Greek skeptics taught their students that
they knew nothing.
When watching a pre-recorded football game, we do
not want to know the result in advance; knowledge
would destroy suspense. The estimated 5 to 10% of
children and their fathers who falsely believe that
they are related might not lead a happier life by
becoming less ignorant; knowledge can destroy families.
And few of us would want to know the day we will
die; knowledge can destroy hope.
Zero-intelligence traders who submitted random bids
and offers in double auctions were as good as experts.
Pedestrians who chose stocks by mere name recognition
outperformed market experts and the Fidelity Growth
Fund--and even more successfully when they were
from abroad and more ignorant of the stock names.
Expert ball players made better decisions about
where to pass the ball when they had less time.
Recreational tennis players who had only heard of
half of the professional players in Wimbledon 2003
and simply bet that those they had not heard of
would lose predicted the outcomes of the matches
better than the official ATP-rankings and the seeding.
Adam Smith's invisible hand is a metaphor for how
collective wisdom emerges from the uninformed masses.
We can prove that situations exist in which a group
does best by following its most ignorant member
rather than the consensus of their informed majority,
and we can prove that a heuristic that ignores all
information except for one reason will make better
predictions than a multiple regression with a dozen
reasons. Mnemonists, who have virtually unlimited
memory, are swamped by details and find it difficult
to abstract and reason, while ordinary people's
working memory limitations maximize the ability
to detect correlations in the world. Limited memory
facilitates acquisition of language, in infants
and computers alike; the more complex the species,
the longer the period of infancy.
Theories that respect the Law of Indispensable Ignorance
incorporate a more realistic picture of people as
being partially ignorant. Omniscience is dispensable.
Markoff's Law of Inversion
Technology once trickled
down from supercomputers to PCs. Now new computing
technology comes to game machines first.
The companies who
make the fastest computers are the ones that make
things that go under Xmas trees.
As cosmological theories advance,
they will draw more concepts from biology.
The part of the universe astronomers can observe
is probably only a tiny part of the aftermath of
'our' big bang, which in turn may be one of an infinity
of 'bangs' in which the physics may be very different
from in ours. To analyze how our own cosmic habitat
relates to this ensemble, we'll need to draw on
concepts from ecology and evolutionary biology ('fitness
So we'll need biological ideas to understand the
beginning. But biology may control the far future
too. In some 'universes' (ours perhaps among them)
life can eventually become pervasive and powerful
enough to renders the dynamics of the cosmic future
as unpredictable as that of an organism or mind.
Humphrey's Law of the Efficacy of Prayer
a dangerous world there will always be more people
around whose prayers for their own safety have been
answered than those whose prayers have not.
[Think about it.]
are always correct.
A certain portion of all predictions made by experts
will be correct.
2. Human memory is short.
3. Make lot of forecasts, most of the people will
remember the correct ones.
4. A good hedge: make contradictory predictions
with intervals between them.
always operates on behalf of the perceived needs
and priorities of some core group of key people.
This purpose will trump every other organizational
loyalty, including those to shareholders, employees,
customers, and other constituents.
Any unbounded bitstream
tends to irrelevance.
Bits are so easy to create, copy, and send that
without some filtering process, the worth of the
entire bitstream decays
rapidly. A good example is the e-mail inbox. Many
e-mail users have no discipline about deleting or
filtering their mail, and thus the bits that flow
in—spam and legitimate mail together—clutter
the inbox to an extent that the worth of the inbox
overall tends to zero.
Stated another way, the worth of a bitstream is
proportional to the accuracy and usage of the filters
and meta-bits applied to the bitstream.
technology evolves toward limits set by physical
Drexler's Second Law
technology approaching the limits set by physical
law must build with atomic precision.
Golomb 's Law
in biology is more complicated than you think
it is, even taking into account Golomb's Law.
Pickover 's Law of Mutating Conjectures
I am having
difficulty formulating a law to give you.
Through the millennia, even the most brilliant
minds rarely generated great and profound
"laws." Probably every "law"
ever made had been broken or will crumble
after a time. Perhaps Edge is asking
the wrong question. Knowledge moves in an
ever-expanding, upward-pointing funnel. From
the rim, we look down and see previous knowledge
from a new perspective as new theories are
formed. Today's conjectures mutate, new theories
evolve, and yesterday's impossibilities become
part of everyday life.
a first approximation, no deals close.
Morgan's First Law
To a first approximation
all appointments are canceled.
of probability zero happen—they are
the ones that change the world.
are actually the engineering approximations
Seckel's First Law
Perception is Essentially an Ambiguity
of us take vision for granted. After all,
it comes to us so easily. With normal
vision we are able to navigate quickly
and efficiently through a visually rich
three-dimensional world of light, shading,
texture, and color—a complex world
in motion, with objects of different sizes
at differing distances. Looking about
we have a definite sense of the "real
In fact, our visual system is so successful
at building an accurate representation
of the real world (our perception) that
most of us do not realize what a difficult
task our brain is performing. Without
conscious thought, our visual system gathers
and interprets complex information, providing
us with a seamless perception of our environment.
The complexities of how we perceive are
cleverly concealed by a successful visual
It might seem reasonable for us to assume
that there is a one-to-one mapping between
the real world and what you perceive—that
your visual system "sees" the retinal
image, in much the way that a digital
camera records what it "sees."
Although it seems like a useful analogy,
there is no real comparison between our
visual system and a camera beyond a strictly
surface level. Furthermore, this comparison
trivializes the accomplishments of our
visual system. This is because a camera
records incoming information, but our
brain interprets incoming information.
Furthermore, it feels to us as if a photograph
reproduces a three-dimensional world,
but it doesn't. It only suggests
one. The same visual system that interprets
the world around us also interprets the
photograph to make it appear as
a three-dimensional scene.
Our perceptions are not always perfect.
Sometimes our brain will interpret a static
image on the retina in more than one way.
A skeleton cube, known as a Necker cube,
is a classic example of a single image
that is interpreted in more than one way.
If you fixate on this cube for any length
of time, it will spontaneously reverse
in depth, even though the image on the
retina remains constant. Our brain interprets
this image differently because of conflicting
The great 19th century German physicist
and physiologist Hermann Von Helmholtz
first discovered the basic problem of
perception over one hundred years ago.
He correctly reasoned that the visual
information from our world that is projected
onto the back of the retina is spatially
ambiguous. Helmholtz reasoned that
there can be an infinite variety of shapes
that can give rise to the same retinal
image, as long as they subtend the same
visual angle to the eye.
However, the concept of visual ambiguity
is far deeper than what Helmholtz originally
proposed, because it turns out that any
one aspect of visual information, such
as brightness, color, motion, etc, could
have arisen from infinitely many different
conditions. It is very hard to appreciate
this fact at first, because what we perceive
in a normal viewing environment is not
at all ambiguous.
If all visual stimuli are inherently ambiguous,
how does our visual/perceptual system
discard the infinite variety of possible
conditions to settle on the correct interpretation
almost all the time, and in such a quick
and efficient manner? The problem basically
stated is, how does the visual system
"retrieve" all of the visual information
about the 3D world from the very limited
information contained in the 2D retinal
image? This is a basic and central question
Studying the visual system only at one
level will never result in a full understanding
of visual perception. Many of the underlying
mechanisms that mediate vision may be
even "messier" than previously thought,
with cross-feedback from more than one
level of visual processing contributing
to processing at another level. UCSD vision
scientist V.S. Ramachandran is correct
when he believes that it is time to "open
the black box in order to study the responses
of nerve cells," but he is also probably
right to promote his Utilitarian Theory
of Perception, which argues for a clever
"bag of tricks" that the human visual
system has evolved over millions of years
of evolution to resolve the inherent ambiguities
in the visual image. Visual perception
is largely an ambiguity-solving process.
The task of vision scientists, therefore,
is to uncover these hidden and underlying
constraints, rather than to attribute
to the visual system a degree of simplicity
that it simply does not possess.
Visual/Perceptual System is Highly Constrained.
our perceptions are wrong. Often these
errors have been classified as illusions,
dismissed by many as failures of the visual
system, quirky exceptions to normal vision.
If illusions are not failures of the visual
system, then, what are they? After all,
we do categorize a number of different
perceptual experiences as "illusions".
What makes them fundamentally different
than those we perceive as normal?
One difference is a noticeable split between
your perception and conception. With an
illusion, your perception is fooled but
your conception is correct—you're
seeing something wrong (your mis perception),
but you know it's wrong (your correct
conception). Initially, your conception
may be fooled too, but at that point you
are unaware that you are encountering
an illusion. It is only when your conception
is at odds with your perception that you
are aware that you have encountered
Furthermore, in almost all pictorial illusions
(where the meaning of the image
is not ambiguous), your perceptions will
continue to be fooled, even though your
conception is fine, no matter how many
times you view the illusion. It does not
matter how old you are, how smart you
are, how cultured you are, or how artistic
you are, you will continue to be fooled
by these illusions over and over again.
In fact, you cannot "undo" your incorrect
perceptions, even with extended experiences,
worldly knowledge, or training. It is
more important for your visual system
to adhere to these constraints than to
violate them because it has encountered
something unusual, inconsistent, or paradoxical.
This indicates that your visual/perceptual
system is highly constrained on how it
interprets the world.
It is not my intention to cause the reader
to think that visual perception is unreliable
and untrustworthy. This would be a mistake
as, for the most part, our perceptions
of the world are veridical. However, how
we perceive the world is not a mirror
image of reality, but an actively and
intelligently constructed one that allows
us to have the best chances for survival
in a complicated environment.
Rucker's Law of Morphogenesis
social, and psychological systems are
based on interactions between an activator
and an inhibitor. The patterns which emerge
depend upon the relative rates at which
the activator and inhibitor spread. Three
main cases occur, depending on whether
the activator's diffusion rate is much
less than, roughly equal to, or greater
than the rate at which the inhibition
spreads. In these three cases we observe,
respectively, isolated patches like zebra
stripes or leopard spots, moving complex
patterns like Belusov-Zhabontinsky scrolls,
or seething chaos. Applying this to the
activator-inhibitor patterns in the human
brain, if you inhibit new thoughts, you
are left with a few highly stimulated
patches: obsessions and fixed ideas. If
you manage to create new thought associations
at about the same rate you inhibit them,
you develop creative complexity. And too
high a rate of activation leads to unproductive
mania. Exercise: apply this notion to
spread of good and bad news in society.
are three sides to every story.
Greek letter delta is a symbol for change
in formulas. This triangle can be taken
personally to create a philosophy that
can be used as laws. For example, the
3 points of a triangle create a possibility
space for change. Two points in a debate
provide nothing more than a tyranny of
dichotomies, whereas adding a third possibility
is always more interesting, and closer
to the true complexity of life. This rule
of favoring 3s instead of 2s also works
in any design to please the eye, such
as three pictures on a wall instead of
two. A couple become more interesting
when they go beyond their own twosome
to create a third focal point, whether
a child, a book or a business. As Yale
paleontologist Dolf Seilacher put it,
Symmetry is boring. The next time you
are confronted with only two choices,
create a third, and see the possibility
science creates two challenging puzzles for
each puzzle it resolves.
Contrary to some prognostications, science
is not coming to an end. Good science is growing
The Anthropic Principle does not resolve any
puzzles and creates no new ones. Hence, ...
(Exercise left for the reader—fill in
the blank. For hint, see Steinhardt's Law.)
fully conscious, don´t trust your brain.
The brain is very good at managing automated,
unconscious processes such as breathing, digesting
or transpiring. But so far neuroscience has
not produced the slightest evidence that flipping
a coin to decide on important matters such
as marriage, taking up a job, or traveling
is any worst than a formal, conscious, discriminatory
decision made by the brain. This should not
surprise anybody. If we leave aside the individual
brain, and look at the evolution of social
primates as a whole, few would question that
the history of civilization equals the history
of successive and cumulative automatization
in fields such as agriculture, industry or
information. Why should it be different for
the individual brain?
When in doubt, please ask Nature, not people.
After all, this is the stuff scientists are
This Law has to do with Darwinian Theory and
Business Practice. There is a huge amount
of money to be made by just applying basic
science to ordinary business. In the Universe
as a whole—according to Physics—95%
of reality is invisible. Most businessmen,
however, are convinced that 95% of what is
going on in their firms, workshops or projects
can be seen at first sight. No wonder that
it takes on average over three failures for
an innovation to succeed.
every important function that
a cell needs to carry out Nature
has created a gadget to make
it more efficient.
(Gadgets are macromolecular
complexes made from proteins,
RNA, and DNA and often have
hundreds of parts.)
No matter how good or bad things
are at any given point in time
(in science as in life), remember
that "this too shall pass."
is key for attaining longevity
in this business... people who
"violate" or are unaware
of this rule are doomed to failure.
In other words, it is vitally
important how one deals with
success and failure in doing
cutting edge science. Failure
is the rule even among the most
successful working scientists
(since 90% of grant application
are typically rejected and the
top journals reject even a higher
percentage); and with respect
to success, in all but a few
exceptional cases, institutional
memory is exceedingly fleeting
(i.e., yesterday's superstars
are unrecognized by today's
grad students, postdocs, junior
faculty). So you've got to keep
pitching if you want to stay
in the science game.
Don't underestimate the importance
of fashion in doing science.
key for success in science...if
you're too far ahead of the
herd (with very few exception)
you're not going to get funded
by NIH/NSF or published in the
premier journals. This is in
spite of the fact that they
claim that they fund innovative
research. Anyone who has spend
as much time on grant review
committees as I have will recognize
the power of this rule. In other
words, there is a price to pay
for originality and every working
scientist knows this is the
sub-conscious mind is to consciousness
what the quantum world is to
the classical world.
vast majority of brain activity
is non-conscious; consciousness
is "the tip of an iceberg"
of neural activity. Yet the
threshold for transition from
pre-, non-, or sub-conscious
processes into conscious awareness
is unknown. The sub-conscious
mind as revealed in dreams has
been described by Matte Blanco
as a place where "paradox
reigns, and opposites merge
to sameness". Reality is
seemingly described by two separate
sets of laws. In our everyday
classical world, Newton's laws
and Maxwell's equations accurately
portray reality. However at
small scales, the bizarre laws
of quantum mechanics rule: particles
are distorted in space and time
(uncertainty), exist in multiple
states or locations simultaneously
(superposition) and remain connected
in opposite states over distance
(nonlocal entanglement). In
the quantum world "paradox
reigns and opposites merge to
The boundary, or threshold between
the quantum and classical worlds
(i.e. quantum state reduction,
collapse of the wave function,
measurement, decoherence) remains
mysterious. Early quantum theorists
to observation: "consciousness
collapses the wave function".
Modern physics attributes reduction/collapse
to any interaction with the
classical environment ("decoherence").
Neither solves the problem of
isolated quantum superpositions
which are nonetheless useful
in quantum computation.
In quantum computation, information
may be represented as isolated
superpositions (e.g. as quantum
both 1 AND 0) which interact/compute
by nonlocal entanglement, and
eventually reduce/collapse to
Based on a 1989 suggestion by
Sir Roger Penrose, he and I
have put forth a specific model
of consciousness involving quantum
computation in microtubules
within the brain's neurons.
Superpositions of multiple possible
or choices reach threshold for
self-collapse (by Roger's "objective
reduction" due to properties
of fundamental spacetime geometry),
and select/reduce to particular
classical perceptions or choices.
Each reduction is a conscious
event, a series of which gives
a "stream of consciousness".
The main scientific objection
to our proposal has been that
the brain is too warm for quantum
computation which in the technological
realm seems to require ultra
cold temperatures to avoid thermal
decoherence. However recent
evidence shows that quantum
processes in biological molecules
are enhanced by increased temperature.
Evolution has had billion of
years to solve the problem of
decoherence. Consciousness may
be a particular form of quantum
state reduction: a process on
the edge between the quantum
and classical worlds.