1999 : WHAT IS THE MOST IMPORTANT INVENTION IN THE PAST TWO THOUSAND YEARS?

Theoretical physicist; Author, The Janus Point (forthcoming) and The End of Time
Theoretical physicist

If it had not been invented over three thousand years ago, I should have nominated the bell, but instead I choose the symphony orchestra. This is because, like the bell, it establishes a dramatic link between two seemingly disparate worlds — the material world of science and the world of the psyche and the arts. The symphony orchestra is surely important because it made possible classical music, the nomination of Howard Gardner. However, I choose it as a symbol for something that may yet be to come, like space travel, the choice of Reuben Hersh. What is more, I make my choice precisely because in just one point I disagree with Howard Gardner — classical music is crucially dependent on physical inventions: musical instruments. I have long been fascinated by one of the great conundrums of philosophy that was clearly recognized by Newton's contempories: If there is only a material world characterized by the so-called primary qualities such as extension, motion, and mass, how are we to explain our awareness of so many different secondary qualities such as colors, sounds, tastes, and smells? The material world has no need of them and can never explain them. Of course, we all know that science can now demonstrate how specific sensations are correlated with physical phenomena, but a correlation is not necessarily a cause — for both correlates may have a common cause — and still less is it an explanation. How can the vibrations of cat gut create in me the effect I experience when listening to Beethoven's quartets? Perhaps I am naïve, but I am a committed scientist. I cannot be content to regard the secondary qualities as epiphenomena. I think there could be a physics, far richer than the one we presently know, in which the secondary qualities are as real as electric charge. The bell and symphony orchestra call us to ponder higher things and wider possibilities, the domain where science is reconciled with the arts.