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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 Strogatz

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


Scott Atran

Atran's Power Law of History

(a corollary to the law of unintended consequences)

The major events that determine human history follow a power distribution (a more or less straight line on a log-log scale), with catastrophic and cascading consequences (economic and health crises, political and cultural revolutions, war and terrorism, etc.), because people naturally prefer to act upon the future based on their modeling of past occurrences. People do not repeat the catastrophes of history because they forget it; people build up self-destructing ideologies and behavior patterns that continue history's catastrophic path because they remember the past too well (e.g., "the maginot effect" for war and the soon-to-be "box-cutting effect" for terrorism).

Ancillary: For politics, history's most well-developed and self-assured "isms" (e.g., colonialism, fascism, communism, globalism) are those most prone to radical collapse.

Atran's Law of Bare Counterintuition

(for the cultural survival of absurd ideas)

Natural selection endowed humans with an intuitive ontology that includes folkbiology (e.g., biodiversity divides into mutually exclusive groups of beings, and each group has a proprietary essence), folkpsychology (e.g., intentional and emotional beings have bodies, and have knowledge of other like beings by observing and inferring how other bodies act), and folkphysics (e.g., two bodies cannot simultaneously occupy the same place at the same time, and no body can occupy different places at the same time). Barely counterintuitive ideas, which violate universal constraints on intuitive ontology (e.g., a bodiless being) but otherwise retain most commonsense properties associated with intuitive ontology (a bodiless being who mostly acts and thinks like a person), are those fictions most apt to survive within a culture, most likely to recur in different cultures, and most disposed to cultural variation and elaboration (e.g., sphinxes and griffins, spirits and crystal balls, ghosts and gods).

Ancillary: For religion (i.e., for most humans in all human societies), the more costly one's commitment to some factually absurd but barely counterintuitive world (e.g., afterlife), the more others believe that person to be sincere and trustworthy.


Esther Dyson

Dyson's Law

Do ask; don't lie.

(Rationale:) How can we find the happy medium between disclosure and prying, between transparency and overexposure? The last thing we want is a law saying that everyone should disclose everything: vested interests, negotiating strategies, intentions, bank account, marital status, whatever.

How can we instead devise some rule that fits the best qualities of the Net decentralized, more or less self-enforcing, flexible.....and responsive to personal choices? The idea is to create a culture that expects disclosure, rather than a legal regime that requires it. People can decide how much they want to play, and others can decide whether to play with them.

First of all, it's two-way. It's not for a single person; it's for an interaction. The first person has to ask; the second person, to answer truthfully or refuse openly to answer.

It drives the responsibility for requiring disclosure down to where it belongs - to those most likely to be affected by the disclosure. It decentralizes the requirement and the enforcement to everyone, instead of leaving it in the hands of a few at the top. (If that's an awkward use of "requirement," it's because we don't even have a word for "decentralized command.")

As an individual, you are not commanded to answer; you may want to protect your own privacy or someone else's. But if you do answer, you must do so truthfully.

Then it's up to the people involved to decide whether to engage - in conversation, in a transaction, in whatever kind of interaction they might be contemplating. The magic of Do ask; don't lie is that the parties to any particular interaction can make a specific, local decision about what level of disclosure is appropriate.


David Bunnell

Bunnell's First Law of Retrievability

Everything is retrievable.

Bunnell's Second Law of Retrievability

Everything is stored somewhere. The secret to retrieving things is simply finding out where they are stored.


Charles Arthur

Arthur's First Law

Nothing is evenly spread; everything happens in clumps. The universe has clumps—galaxies, star systems, stars, planets, asteroids. You meet an old friend for the first time in years, then again and again. The smart folk are all together. It's a universal.

Arthur's Second Law

More data is good, and drives out the bad.


Philip W. Anderson

Anderson's Law

More is different.


Pamela McCorduck

McCorduck's Law

A linear projection into the future of any science or technology is like a form of propaganda — often persuasive, almost always wrong.


John Skoyles

Skoyles' Law of Culture and the Brain

Human culture and human cognition exists because the brain's neural plasticity allows learned symbolic associations to substitute for the innate inputs and outputs of already evolved ape cognitions, a process that extends greatly their functionality.

Skoyles' Law of Literacy

A society develops democracy to the degree that it writes social, legal and religious ideas using the syntax, vocabulary and pronunciation of everyday speech, rather than that of a professional, literary or dead language.


John Maddox

Maddox's First Law

Those who scorn the "publish or perish" principle are the most eager to see their own manuscripts published quickly and given wide publicity—and the least willing to see their length reduced.

Maddox's Second Law

Reviewers who are best placed to understand an author's work are the least likely to draw attention to its achievements, but are prolific sources of minor criticism, especially the identification of typos.

Maddox's Third Law

Just as nature is supposed to abhor a vacuum, so scientific opinion abhors questions unlikely to be answered soon, whence the general belief that the origin of the Universe is now nearly understood.


Arthur R. Jensen

Jensen's First and Second Laws of Individual Differences in Cognitive Abilities have crucial educational, economic, and social consequences. Jensen's two fundamental laws derived from empirical studies of human individual differences (population variance) in cognitive ability:

Jensen's First Law

Individual differences in learning and performance increase as a monotonic function of task complexity or difficulty.

Jensen's Second Law

Individual differences in learning and performance increase with continuing practice and experience,
unless there is an intrinsically low ceiling on task proficiency.


Keith Devlin

Devlin's First Law

Buyer beware: in the hands of a charlatan, mathematics can be used to make a vacuous argument look impressive.

Devlin's Second Law

So can PowerPoint.


Arnold Trehub

Trehub's Law

For any experience, thought, question, or solution there is a corresponding analog in the biophysical state of the brain.


Michael Nesmith

Nesmith's First Law

The Universe includes no contrary laws

Nesmith's Second Law

Mind is the Constant in all equations


David G. Myers

Myers' Law of Truth

The surest truth is that some of our beliefs err.

Monotheism, someone has said, offers two simple axioms: 1) There is a God. 2) It's not you. Knowing that we are fallible humans underlies the humility and openness that inspires science, and democracy. As Madeline L'Engle noted, "The naked intellect is an extraordinarily inaccurate instrument."

Myers' Law of Self-Perception

Most people see themselves as better than average.

Nine in ten managers rate themselves as superior to their average peer. Nine in ten college professors rated themselves as superior to their average colleague. And six in ten high school seniors rate their "ability to get along with others" as in the top 10 percent. Most drivers–even most drivers who have been hospitalized after accidents–believe themselves more skilled than the average driver. "The one thing that unites all human beings, regardless of age, gender, religion, economic status or ethnic background," observes Dave Barry, "is that deep down inside, we all believe that we are above average drivers." Excess humility is an uncommon flaw.

Myers Law of Writing

Anything that can be misunderstood will be.


Howard Rheingold

Rheingold's Law

Communication media that enable collective action on new scales, at new rates, among new groups of people, multiply the power available to civilizations and enable new forms of social interaction. The alphabet enabled empire and monotheism, the printing press enabled science and revolution, the telephone enabled bureaucracy and globalization, the Internet enabled virtual communities and electronic markets, the mobile telephone enabled smart mobs and tribes of urban info-nomads.


Todd Siler

Siler's First Law

The brain is what the brain creates. Its workings reflect the workings of everything it creates.

Siler's Second Law

Genius is everywhere, everyday, in everyone, in every way imaginable.


Garniss Curtis

Curtis' First Law

With several unknown keys in hand, one of which fits the lock in front of you, the first time you try all the keys, none will open it.

Curtis' Second Law

If you try all the keys again, there is only a fifty/fifty chance you will be successful.


Marvin Minsky

Minsky's First Law

Words should be your servants, not your masters.

Minsky's Second Law

Don't just do something. Stand there.


John Barrow

Barrow's first 'law'

Any Universe simple enough to be understood is too simple to produce a mind able to understand it.

Barrow's second 'law'

All difficult conjectures should be proved by reductio ad absurdum arguments. For if the proof is long and complicated enough you are bound to make a mistake somewhere and hence a contradiction will inevitably appear, and so the truth of the original conjecture is
established QED.

Brian Goodwin

Goodwin's Limited Law


The truth has as many faces as there are beings that express it. so no-one is ever wrong. everyone is right, though in limited ways. wisdom lies in spotting the limitation while being grateful for the insight.

Kevin Kelly

Kellys' First Law

Power, understanding, control. Pick any two.

Kellys' Second Law

Nobody is as smart as everybody.


John McWhorter

McWhorter's Law of Social History

In a context of widespread literacy, easy communications, and a large class of people with ample leisure time, the social movement that begins by addressing a concrete grievance will, after the grievance has been largely addressed, pass into the hands of persons inclined for individual reasons towards the dramatic and self-righteous, who will manipulate the movement's iconography and passion into a staged indignation difficult for outsiders to square with reality, and with little actively progressive or beneficent intention.


John Allen Paulos

Paulos' Law of Coincidence

People often note some unlikely conjunction of events and marvel at the coincidence. Could anything be more wonderfully improbable, they wonder. The answer is Yes. The most amazing coincidence of all would be the complete absence of coincidence.


Freeman Dyson

Dyson's Law of Obsolescence

If you are writing history and try to keep it up-to-date up to a time T before the present, it will be out-of-date within a time T after the present.

This law applies also to scientific review articles.

( Thanks for including the Doctor Moreau quote, which describes us very well.)


Richard Nisbett

Nisbett's Law

When you have the beginnings of an idea about something, the worst thing to do is to consult "the literature" before you get started to work on it. You are sure to assimilate your potentially original idea to something that is already out there.


Timothy Taylor

Taylor's Law

There are no laws of human behavior.


Carlo Rovelli

Rovelli's Two Principles

Time Does Not Exist

Contrary to what generally assumed, the physical world does not exist "in time". At the basic microscopic level, the world is better described in terms of a a-temporal theory, where physical laws do not express time evolution of physical variables, but just relations between variables. Time emerges only thermodynamically when describing macroscopic variables. Therefore time is only a side effect of our ignorance of the microscopic state of the world. "Time is a side effect of ignorance."

Space Does Not Exist

The physical world does not exist "in space". The physical world is made by an ensemble of particles and fields, which do not live in an external space, but rather live "on each other", and which can be in a relation of contiguity with respect to one another. "Space" is the order implied by this relation. These two principles are implied by what we have learned about the physical world with general relativity and with quantum mechanics. The second principle is largely a return to the Pre-Newtonian relational understanding of space, while the first has few antecendents in our culture.


Karl Sabbagh

Sabbagh's First Law

Never assume.

All the mistakes I have made in my life—not that there are that many, of course—have been because I failed to follow my own law.

Sabbagh's Second Law

The biggest problem with communication is the illusion that it has occurred. I think this is the more original and far-reaching of the two laws but I have put it second because it's not really mine. It was said to me by Alan Mulally, an inspiring Boeing manager (and they need inspiring managers at
the moment.)


Douglas Rushkoff

Rushkoff's Law

A religion will increase in social value until a majority of its members actually believe in it—at which point the social damage it causes will increase exponentially as long as it is in existence.

Rushkoff's Law of Media

True communication can only occur between people with equal access to the medium in which the communication is taking place.

Roger Schank

Schank's Law

Because people understand by finding in their memories the closest possible match to what they are hearing and use that match as the basis of comprehension, any new idea will be treated as a variant of something the listener has already thought of or heard. Agreement with a new idea means a listener has already had a similar thought and well appreciates that the speaker has recognized his idea. Disagreement means the opposite. Really new ideas are incomprehensible. The good news is that for some people, failure to comprehend is the beginning of understanding. For most, of course, it is the beginning of dismissal.


Joseph Traub

Traub's Law (Version 1)

The important things in life often happen by chance while we're agonizing over the trivia.

Traub's Law (Version 2)

The important events of a person's life are the products of chains of highly improbable occurrences.


Daniel Gilbert

Gilbert' Law

Happy people are those who do not pass up an opportunity to laugh at themselves or to make love with someone else. Unhappy people are those who get this backwards.

Irene Pepperberg

Pepperberg's Law of Comparative Cognition

Any behavior exhibited by young children that is taken as evidence of the early emergence of intelligence will, when subsequently exhibited by nonhumans, be interpreted by many humans as a set of simple stimulus-response associations lacking cognitive processing, whereas the stimulus-response explanation will rarely be used to re-interpret the behavior of the child.


David Lykken

Lykken's First Law

The quality of one's intellectual productions is a function of the product of talent (e.g., intelligence) times mental energy. Although there are many and varied tests for assessing intelligence, psychologists have not as yet even attempted to construct a measure of individual differences in mental energy.

Lykken's Second Law

The mind consists of genetically-determined hardware and experientially-determined software. The hardware components are not constructed by genes working either individually or additively but, rather, by groups of genes working sequentially and configurally. Each human mating produces at least some gene configurations that are unique, having never occurred previously. This is why, among other things, human genius often occurs uniquely in an otherwise undistinguished family line.


Marc D. Hauser

Hauser's First Law

Every uniquely human ability, including cooking, mathematics, morality, and music, is based on a set of biologically primitive capacities that evolved before our species walked the earth.

Hauser's Second Law

The historical stability of our prescriptive claims (what we ought to do) are determined by principles underlying our universal judgments. Nature's is constrains our lofty hopes for what ought to be.


James J. O'Donnell

O'Donnell's Law of Academic Administration

If it feels good, don't do it.

Because if it feels good, it's going to be because it eases some frustration you're feeling from all the constraints and hassles of the institution; or because it really shows up so-and-so; or because it makes you feel you really do have a little authority around here after all. It won't, it won't, and you don't. Better to calm down, make sure you know all the facts, make sure you've talked to all 49 stakeholders, and sleep on it, then do the thing you have to hold your nose to do.

O'Donnell's Law of History

There are no true stories.

Story-tellers are in the iron grip of readers' expectations. Stories have beginnings, middles, ends, heroes, villains, clarity, resolution. Life has none of those things, so any story gets to be a story (especially if it's a good story) by edging away from what really happened (which we don't know in anywhere near enough detail anyway) towards what makes a good story. Historians exist to wrestle with the story temptation the way Laocoon wrestled with the snakes. But at the end of the day, to tell anybody anything, you'll probably tell a story, so then be sure to follow:

Luther's Law

Pecca fortiter.

Literally, "Sin bravely." His idea was that you're going to make a mess of things anyway, so you might as well do so boldly, confidently, with a little energy and imagination, rather than timidly, fearfully, half-heartedly.


Howard Gardner

Gardner's First Law

Don't ask how smart someone is; ask in what ways is he or she smart.

Gardner's Second Law

You can never go directly from a scientific discovery to an educational recommendation: all educational practices presuppose implicit or explicit value judgments.


William H. Calvin

Calvin's Law of Coherence

When things "all hang together," you have either gotten the joke, solved the puzzle, argued in a circle, focused your chain of logic so narrowly that you will be blindsided—or discovered a hidden pattern in nature. Science, in large part, consists of imagining coherent solutions and then making sure that you weren't fooled by a false coherence as in astrology.


Bruce Sterling

Sterling's Law of Ubiquitous Computation

First, your home is a constant, while the Net is a place you go; then the Net becomes a constant while your home is a place you go.

Sterling's Corollary to Clarke's Law

Any sufficiently advanced garbage is indistinguishable from magic.


George B. Dyson

Dyson's Law of Artificial Intelligence

Anything simple enough to be understandable will not be complicated enough to behave intelligently, while anything complicated enough to behave intelligently will not be simple enough to understand.


"I am the Sayer of the Law," said the grey figure.

"Here come all that be new to learn the Law. I sit in the darkness and say the Law."

"It is even so," said one of the beasts in the doorway.

"Evil are the punishments of those who break the Law. None escape."

"None escape," said the Beast Folk, glancing furtively at one another.

"None, none," said the Ape Man. "None escape..."

— H. G. Wells, op. cit., p 67.


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John Brockman, Editor and Publisher
Russell Weinberger, Associate Publisher

contact: [email protected]
Copyright © 2004 by
Edge Foundation, Inc
All Rights Reserved.

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