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THE EDGE ANNUAL QUESTION - 2004:
"What's Your Law"


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"So 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?"
"John 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."
"John Brockman has posted an intriguing question on his Edge website. Brockman advises his would-be legislators to stick to the scientific disciplines."
"Everything 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 more laws."

2003
"What are the pressing scientific issues for the nation and the world, and what is your advice on how I can begin to deal with them?"
"In 2002, he [Brockman] asked respondents to imagine that they had been nominated as White House science adviser and that President Bush had sought their answer to 'What are the pressing scientific issues for the nation and the world, and what is your advice on how I can begin to deal with them?'Here are excerpts of some of the responses. "
"Edge's combination of political engagement and blue-sky thinking makes stimulating reading for anyone seeking a glimpse into the next decade."
"Dear W: Scientists Offer
President Advice on Policy"
"There are 84 responses, ranging in topic from advanced nanotechnology to the psychology of foreign cultures, and lots of ideas regarding science, technology, politics, and education."

2002
"What's Your Question?"
"Brockman's 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."
"The 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, intelligent questions..."

2001—9/11
What Now?
  "We are interested in ‘thinking smart,'" declares Brockman on the site, "we are not interested in the anesthesiology of ‘wisdom.'"
"INSPIRED ARENA: Edge has been bringing together the world's foremost scientific thinkers since 1998, and the response to September 11 was measured and uplifting."

2001
"What Questions Have Disappeared?"
"Responses 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 is doing."
"Once 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."

2000
"What Is Today's Most Important Unreported Story?"
"Don't 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.

1999
"What Is The Most Important Invention In The Past Two Thousand Years?"
"A terrific, thought provoking site."
"The Power of Big Ideas"
"The Nominees for Best Invention Of the Last Two Millennia Are . . ."
"...Thoughtful and often surprising answers ....a fascinating survey of intellectual and creative wonders of the world ..... Reading them reminds me of how wondrous our world is." — Bill Gates, New York Times Syndicated Column

1998
"What Questions Are You Asking Yourself?"
"A 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?' "
"Home to often lively, sometimes obscure and almost always ambitious discussions."



Contributors

Izumi Aizu

Alan Alda

Ivan Amato

Alun Anderson

Chris Anderson

Philip W. Anderson

Charles Arthur

W. Brian Arthur

Scott Atran

Robert Aunger

Albert-László Barabási

Simon Baron-Cohen

Samuel Barondes

Julian Barbour

John Barrow

David Berreby

Gregory Benford

Jamshed Bharucha

Susan Blackmore

Colin Blakemore

Adam Bly

Stewart Brand

Rodney Brooks

David Bunnell

David Buss

William Calvin

Philip Campbell

Leo Chalupa

Andy Clark

Helena Cronin

Garniss Curtis

Antonio Damasio

Paul Davies

Richard Dawkins

Stanislas Dehaene

Daniel C. Dennett

David Deutsch

Art De Vany

Keith Devlin

Niels Diffrient

K. Eric Drexler

Esther Dyson

Freeman Dyson

George Dyson

Brian Eno

Jeffrey Epstein

Nancy Etcoff

Dylan Evans

Paul Ewald

David Finkelstein

Christine Finn

Howard Gardner

David Gelernter

Neil Gershenfeld

Gerd Gigerenzer

Daniel Gilbert

Mike Godwin

Beatrice Golomb

Brian Goodwin

Alison Gopnik

Steve Grand

Stuart Hameroff

Haim Harari

Judith Rich Harris

Marc D. Hauser

Marti Hearst

W. Daniel Hillis

Gerald Holton

Donald Hoffman

John Horgan

Verena Huber-Dyson

Nicholas Humphrey

Mark Hurst

Piet Hut

Arthur R. Jensen

Raphael Kasper

Stuart Kauffman

Kevin Kelly

Art Kleiner

Steven Kosslyn

Kai Krause

Andrian Kreye

Ray Kurzweil

George Lakoff

Jaron Lanier

Edward O. Laumann

Steven Levy

Sara Lippincott

Steve Lohr

Seth Lloyd

David Lykken

John McWhorter

John Maddox

Gary Marcus

John Markoff

Pamela McCorduck

Geoffrey Miller

Marvin Minsky

Mark Mirsky

Howard Morgan

Michael Nesmith

David G. Myers

Randoph Nesse

Richard Nisbett

Tor Nørretranders

James J. O'Donnell

Jay Ogilvy

Dennis Overbye

John Allan Paulos

Irene Pepperberg

Clifford Pickover

Stuart Pimm

Steven Pinker

Jordan Pollack

Ernst Pöppel

William Poundstone

Robert Provine

Eduard Punset

Steve Quartz

Richard Rabkin

Lisa Randall

Eric S. Raymond

Martin Rees

John Rennie

Howard Rheingold

Matt Ridley

Rudy Rucker

Paul Ryan

Scott Sampson

Robert Sapolsky

Roger Schank

Gino Segre

Charles Seife

Terrence Sejnowski

Al Seckel

Rupert Sheldrake

Michael Shermer

Todd Siler

Charles Simonyi

John Skoyles

Lee Smolin

Allan Snyder

Dan Sperber

Maria Spiropulu

Paul Steinhardt

Bruce Sterling

Steven Strogat

Leonard Susskind

Nassim Taleb

Frank Tipler

Joseph Traub

Arnold Trehub

Carlo Rovelli

Douglas Rushkoff

Karl Sabbagh

Timothy Taylor

Sherry Turkle

Yossi Vardi

J. Craig Venter

Henry Warwick

Delta Willis

Dave Winer

Eberhard Zangger

Anton Zeilinger


Eberhard Zangger

Zangger's First Law

Most scientific breakthroughs are nothing else than the discovery of the obvious.

Zangger's Second Law

Truly great science is always ahead of its time.

Although there seems to be a slight contradiction in my laws, historical evidence proves them right:

• The Hungarian surgeon Ignaz Semmelweiss in 1847 reduced the death rate in his hospital from twelve to two percent, simply by washing hands between operations -- a concept that today would be advocated by a four year old child. When Semmelweiss urged his colleagues to introduce hygiene to the operating rooms, they had him committed to a mental hospital where he eventually died.

• The German meteorologist Alfred Wegener discovered in 1913 what every ten year old looking at a globe will notice immediately: That the Atlantic coasts of the African and South American continents have matching contours and thus may have been locked together some time ago. The experts needed sixty more years to comprehend the concept.

• When Louis Pasteur stated that bacteria could cause disease, colleagues treated the idea as "an absurd fantasy'!

• The theories of the Austrian psychiatrist Sigmund Freud were called "a case for the police" during a neurologists’ congress in Hamburg in 1910.

• Lord Kelvin, President of the Royal Society, only eight years before Orville and Wilbur Wright left the ground in an aeroplane, remarked: "Machines that are heavier than air will never be able to fly!"

• German physicists Erwin Schrödinger's PhD thesis, in which he first introduced his famous equation, was initially rejected.

• When the Spanish nobleman de Satuola discovered the Late Ice Age painted cave at Altamira, established scholars described him as a forger and a cheat.

• The decipherment of Egyptian hieroglyphs by Jean Francois Champollion in 1822 was still rejected by scholar twenty years after his death.

• And when Johann Karl Fuhlrott discovered the bones of a Neanderthal in a cave near Duesseldorf in 1856, the president of the German Society of Anthropology considered it a bow-legged, Mongolian Cossack with rickets, who had been lucky enough to survive multiple head injuries, but who, during a campaign by Russian forces against France in 1814, had been wounded, and (stark naked) had crawled into a cave, where he died.

• Heinrich Schliemann’s excavation of Bronze Age Mycenae and Tiryns in Greece was considered by English archaeologists in The Times’ as the remains of some obscure barbarian tribe’ from the Byzantine period. In particular, the so-called prehistoric palace in Tiryns was labelled "the most remarkable hallucination of an unscientific enthusiast that has ever appeared in literature."

Scientific breakthroughs will always be held hostage to the lag needed to overcome existing beliefs. Lucius Annaeus Seneca realized this already two thousand years ago, when he said: "The time will come, when our successors will be surprised that we did not know such obvious things."


Maria Spiropulu

Maria's 1st Law

The anthropic principle in cosmology is just a (silly) corollary of the anthropic principle in religion: We are, therefore god is.

Maria's 2nd Law

We are not the source of the laws of nature. Nature is, whether we are or not.

Maria's 3rd Law

A law at the time of its conception is the solution to a problem or the answer to a question; at that time both the solution and the problem, the question and the answer, are ill-posed.


Julian Barbour

My laws make more precise Carlo Rovelli’s two principles: time does not exist, space does not exist. He argues that the universe is a network of relations and not a game played out on some invisible arena of absolute space and time such as Newton postulated. I agree but believe it is important to formulate precisely the manner in which the universe is relational.

Barbour’s First Law

The change of a physical field at a given point is not measured by time but by the changes of all the other physical fields at the same point. To determine a rate of change, one does not divide an infinitesimal change by an infinitesimal time interval but by the weighted average of all the other changes at the same point. This ensures that an invisible time can play no role in the dynamics of the universe.

Barbour’s Second Law

Geometry is founded on congruence, dynamics on minimisation of incongruence.

This requires amplification. Suppose just three particles in space. Newton defined their motions relative to absolute space. In relational dynamics, this is not allowed. Instead, the motions (changes) between two instantaneous states of the three particles are completely determined by the intrinsic changes of the triangles that they form. Real change will happen when a triangle becomes incongruent with itself. To determine the intrinsic change between one triangle and another ever so slightly incongruent with it, move one relative to each other until the position of best matching, in which they coincide more closely than in any other possible relative positioning, is achieved. The corresponding displacements (changes) determined by this minimisation of incongruence are the true physical displacements. The notion of best matching can be applied universally to both particles and fields.

Barbour’s Third Law

Space is Riemannian.

Spelled out in the appropriate mathematical detail, these three laws seem to explain the structure of all currently known physical fields as well as the existence of the universal light cone of Einstein’s special relativity and gauge theory.

Tor Nørretranders

Nørretranders' Law of Symmetrical Relief

If you find that most other people, upon closer inspection, seem to be somewhat comical or ludicrous, it is highly probable that most other people find that you are in fact comical or ludicrous. So you don't have to hide it, they already know.

Nørretranders' Law of Understanding Novelty

The difficulty in understanding new ideas originating from science or art is not intellectual, but emotional; good ideas are simple and clear, but if they are truly new, they will be hard to swallow. It is not difficult to understand that the Earth is not at the center of the Universe, but it is hard to believe it. Science is simple, simply strange.


Philip Campbell

Campbell's First Law

Whatever the science, the forces of nature will exploit any loophole in experimental or theoretical design and construction, any ambiguity in measurement and any unchecked or unrecognised assumption to lead a researcher to enticing but false conclusions.

Campbell's Second Law

Scientists are as vigorous in complaining about the incomprehensibility of others' scientific papers as they are lazy in clarifying their own.

Campbell's Third Law

The probability that a Powerpoint presentation will fail is proportional to the technical sophistication of the institution at which you are presenting it. (And by the way, where the failure is total, your talk will be all the better for it.)


Steve Quartz

Quartz's Law of The Primacy of Feeling

In everyday life, one's anticipated emotions regarding a decision is a better guide than rational deliberation. Brain science is increasingly appreciating the centrality of emotions as guides to life, and emotions are typically more in line with one's wishes than rational deliberation, which can be easily disconnected from one's desires and goals. The upshot: deliberation is cheap, emotions are honest.

Quartz's Law of Latent Plasticity

Failure to alter thought, mood, personality, or other facets of ourselves through environmental means is not a demonstration that these are hard-wired. Rather, such failure should be taken merely as an indication that we have not yet discovered the appropriate regime of experience. New experience-based approaches to brain change are rapidly emerging, and overturn the dogma of the inflexible brain. We can now utilize the brain's latent capacity for change to treat mood disorders through experience-based brain change. Learning how to utilize the brain's latent plasticity, or capacity for change, will produce revolutions in physical, cognitive, and mental health remediation.


J. Craig Venter

Venter's First Law

Discoveries made in a field by some one from another discipline will always be upsetting to the majority of those inside.

Venter's Second Law

The ability to directly read the genetic code will continue exponentially, with the cost per nucleotide (base pair) decreasing by one-half every two years.

Corollary to Law 2

While DNA sequencing has changed faster than Moore's Law for computer chips, it will become dependent on and therefore limited by Moore's Law. (Based on an exchange with Gordon Moore).

Venter's Third Law

We have the tools for the first time in the history of humanity to answer virtually any question about biology and our own evolution.

Venter's Fourth Law

The Earth's Oceans are the ultimate source of genetic/genomic diversity providing at least half of the more than 10 billion genes in the planet's gene pool.

Venter's Fifth Law

Life is like sailing: It is easy to run downwind but usually if you want to get somewhere worthwhile a long hard beat to weather is necessary.


Richard Dawkins

Dawkins's Law of the Conservation of Difficulty

Obscurantism in an academic subject expands to fill the vacuum of its intrinsic simplicity.

Dawkins's Law of Divine Invulnerability

God cannot lose.

Lemma 1

When comprehension expands, gods contract—but then redefine themselves to restore the status quo.

Lemma 2

When things go right, God will be thanked. When things go wrong, he will be thanked that they are not worse.

Lemma 3


Belief in the afterlife can only be proved right, never wrong.

Lemma 4

The fury with which untenable beliefs are defended is inversely proportional to their defensibility

The following law, though probably older, is often attributed to me in various versions, and I am happy to formulate it here as

Dawkins's Law of Adversarial Debate

When two incompatible beliefs are advocated with equal intensity, the truth does not lie half way between them.


David Finkelstein

Finkelstein's First Law

Everything is relative.

Finkelstein's Second Law

Everything (which is relative).


Paul Davies

Davies' First Law

Time does not pass.

Davies' Second Law

Never let observation stand in the way of a good theory.


Steve Grand

Grand's First Law

Things that persist, persist; things that don't, don't.

This tautology underlies every single phenomenon we see around us, from
molecules to religions. The purpose of science is simply to discover how and
why any given class of pattern manages to persist. Life is best understood
as a group of patterns that are able to persist because they spontaneously
duplicate themselves and adapt to change. Equally, an electron is a pattern
that persists as a self-maintaining resonant mode in the electromagnetic
field. The universe is what is left over when all the non-self-maintaining
patterns have faded away.

Grand's Second Law

Cortex is cortex is cortex.

Our brains may end up as a collection of highly specialised 'modules', but
the functioning of these modules is not the key to intelligence. The key is
the deeper set of rules that enable a homogeneous pink goo to wire itself up
into such a collection of specialised machines in the first place, merely by
being exposed to the sensory world.

Grand's Third Law

The more carefully one makes contingency plans, the more bizarre the actual
circumstances will turn out to be.


David Deutsch

Deutsch's Law

Every problem that is interesting is also soluble.

Corollary #1

Inherently insoluble problems are inherently boring.

Corollary #2

In the long run, the distinction between what is interesting and what is boring is not a matter of subjective taste but an objective fact.

Corollary #3

The problem of why every problem that is interesting is also soluble, is soluble.


Rodney Brooks

Brooks' First Law

A good place to apply scientific leverage is on an implicit assumption that everyone makes and that is so implicit that no one would even think to mention it to students entering the field. Negating that assumption may lead to new and interesting ways of thinking.

Brooks' Second Law

If you don't have a solid example then your theory is not a good theory.


Gary Marcus

Marcus' First Law

Nature and nurture are not in opposition; nature is what makes nurture possible.

Marcus' Second Law

Nothing in evolution is without precedent; even the most wondrous adaptations are modifications of pre-existing systems.

Marcus' Third Law

What's good enough for the body is good enough for the brain. Brains, like any other organ, take their special character from the actions of individual cells that divide, differentiate, migrate, and die, according to genetic programs that are the product of evolution.


Verena Huber-Dyson

Verena's Law of Sane Reasoning

Hone your Hunches, Jump, then backtrack to blaze a reliable trail to your Conclusion.

But avoid reductions; they lead to mere counterfeits of truth.

Verena's Law of Constructive Proof

Every sound argument can and ought to be turned into a construction that embodies and explains its conclusion.


Scott Sampson

Sampson's Law of Interdependent Origination

Life's unfolding is a tapestry in which every new thread is contingent upon the nature, timing, and interweaving of virtually all previous threads.

This is an extension of the idea that the origin of new life forms is fundamentally contingent upon interactions among previous biotas. As Stephen J. Gould described it, if one could rewind the tape of life and let events play out again, the results would almost certainly differ dramatically. The point of distinction here is a deeper incorporation of the connections inherent in the web of life. Specifically, the origin of new species is inextricably linked both to evolutionary history and to intricate ecological relationships with other species. Thus, speciation might be aptly termed "interdependent origination." So, for example, it is often said that the extinction of dinosaurs 65 million years ago cleared the way for the radiation of mammals and, ultimately, the origin of humans. Yet the degree of life's interconnectedness far exceeds that implied in this statement. Dinosaurs persisted for 160 million years prior to this mass dying, co-evolving in intricate organic webs with plants, bacteria, fungi, and algae, as well as other animals, including mammals. Together these Mesozoic life forms influenced the origins and fates of one another and all species that followed. Had the major extinction of the dinosaurs occurred earlier or later, or had dinosaurs never evolved, subsequent biotas would have been wholly different, and we almost certainly wouldn't be here to contemplate nature. An equivalent claim could be made for any major group at any point in the history of life.


Colin Blakemore

Blakemore's First Law

People are never more honest than you think they are.

Blakemore's Second Law

The only form of intelligence that really matters is the capacity to predict.


Michael Shermer

Shermer's Last Law

Any sufficiently advanced extra-terrestrial intelligence is indistinguishable from God.

Any ETI that we might encounter would not be at our level of culture, science, and technology, nor would they be behind us. How far ahead of us would they be? If they were only a little ahead of us on an evolutionary time scale, they would be light years ahead of us technologically, because cultural evolution is much more rapid than biological evolution. God is typically described by Western religions as omniscient and omnipotent. Since we are far from the mark on these traits, how could we possibly distinguish a God who has them absolutely, from an ETI who has them in relatively (to us) copious amounts? Thus, we would be unable to distinguish between absolute and relative omniscience and omnipotence. But if God were only relatively more knowing and powerful than us, then by definition it would be an ETI!

Shermer's Three Principles of Provisional Morality and Evolutionary Ethic

1. The ask-first principle: to find out whether an action is right or wrong, ask first.

2. The happiness principle: it is a higher moral principle to always seek happiness with someone else's happiness in mind, and never seek happiness when it leads to someone else's unhappiness.

3. The liberty principle: it is a higher moral principle to always seek liberty with someone else's liberty in mind, and never seek liberty when it leads to someone else's loss of liberty.

0. The Zeroeth principle: do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

(These principles were derived from a scientific analysis of the evolutionary origins of the moral sentiments and the historical development of evolutionary ethics. The Zeroeth Principle, which precedes the three principles, first evolved hundreds of thousands of years ago but was first codified in writing by the world's great religious leaders and has come down to us as the golden rule. The foundation of the Zeroeth Principle, and the three derivative principles is, in evolutionary theory, reciprocal altruism and the process of reciprocity.)


Ernst Pöppel

I refer to my "laws" as "Pöppel's Paradox", and "Pöppel's Universal". Actually the names have been invented by others.

Pöppel's Paradox

Not to see, but to see. Some years ago (1973) we described a phenomenon that patients with a certain brain injury show some residual vision although they do not have a conscious representation of their remained visual capacity. They can orient in space, or they can discriminate simple patterns, but they do not know that they can do it. This phenomenon became known as "blindsight". Apparently there is a lot of implicit processing going in our brain that lacks an explicit representation, but which usually is associated with conscious experience. Interestingly, the phenomenon of blindsight not only made a "career" in the neurosciences, but also in philosophy.

Pöppel's Universal

We take life 3 seconds at a time. Human experience and behaviour is characterized by temporal segmentation. Successive segments or "time windows" have a duration of approx. 3 seconds. Examples: Intentional movements are embedded within 3 s (like a handshake); the anticipation of a precise movement like hitting a golf ball does not go beyond 3 s; if we reproduce the duration of a stimulus, we can do so accurately up to 3 s but not beyond; if we look at ambiguous figures (like a vase vs. two faces) or if we listen to ambiguous phoneme sequences (like Cu-Ba-Cu-Ba-.., either hearing Cuba or Bacu) automatically after approx. 3 s the percept switches to the alternative; the working platform of our short term memory lasts only 3 s (being interrupted after 3 s most of the information is gone); spontaneous speech in all languages is temporally segmented, each segment lasting up to 3 s; this temporal segmentation of speech shows up again in poetry, as a verse of a poem is embedded within 3 s (Shakespeare: "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day"); musical motives preferably last 3 s (remember Beethoven's Fifth Symphony); decisions are made within 3 s (like zapping between TV channels); and there are more examples. Thus, the brain provides a temporal stage that last approx. 3 s, which is used in perception, cognition, movement control, memory, speech, or music.


Robert Aunger

Aunger's Law of Human Evolution

Human life is unique in being the result of three coevolving information inheritance systems: genes, minds and technology.

Aunger's Law of Technological Evolution

As the rate of technological innovation increases, so too does the inertia from ancillary institutions, but not as much.


John Horgan

Horgan's First Law

If science has limits—and science tells us that it does—the only question is when, not if, it reaches them.

Horgan's Second Law

Every garbage-removal system—whether Zen, skepticism, or existentialism—generates garbage. If you want to clear your mind, the best you can hope for is to find a system, or anti-system, that removes more garbage than it generates.


Seth Lloyd

Lloyd's It From Qubit Law

The universe is a quantum computer: life, sex, the brain, and human society all arise out of the ability of the universe to process information at the level of atoms, photons and elementary particles.


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John Brockman, Editor and Publisher
Russell Weinberger, Associate Publisher

contact: [email protected]
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Edge Foundation, Inc
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