This Explains Everything

Author: John Brockman (editor)

Type: Non-fiction, essays

Full title: This Explains Everything: Deep, Beautiful, and Elegant Theories of How the World Works

Published: 2013

I read it: October 2014

this explains

Whenever John Brockman tosses out a question to his scientists and thinkers, the responses are delightfully wide-ranging. The authors of this book get to mull over three adjectives–deep, elegant, and beautiful–and come up with their favorite explanation to a problem in the past or present.

Though “favorite” is a fun allowance, it’s telling how many people acknowledge the top contenders. Susan Blackmore says it in the first sentence of the first entry: “Of course it has to be Darwin.” Hot on the heels of evolution by natural selection is Watson and Crick’s DNA. So deep, elegant, and beautiful are these particular explanations that several contributors deliberately choose something else to write about, confident that their colleagues will take the obvious ones.

The book is generally organized by chunking together essays of similar topics. There’s a lot of physics, which can be a bit dense for me, though I enjoyed plenty of others, such as:

Brains and minds:

“Overlapping Solutions” by David Eagleman

“Our Bounded Rationality” by Mahzarin Banaji

Cosmology:

“A Hot Young Earth: Unquestionably Beautiful and Stunningly Wrong” by Carl Zimmer (which gives an anti-answer through a good science story)

“Deep Time” by Alun Anderson

Culture:

“Why We Feel Pressed for Time” by Elizabeth Dunn

“Dan Sperber’s Explanation of Culture” by Clay Shirky

Ideas and theories:

“How to Have a Good Idea” by Marcel Kinsbourne

“In the Beginning is the Theory” by Helena Cronin

Physical systems:

“The Gaia Hypothesis” by Scott Sampson

“The Pigeonhole Principle” by Jon Kleinberg

Fun, specific concepts:

“Birds are the Direct Descendants of Dinosaurs” by Gregory S. Paul

“Why the Greeks Painted Red People on Black Pots” by Timothy Taylor

Playfulness with the topic itself includes a poem, several entries that question the definitions or usefulness of deep, elegant, and beautiful, and others that practice the art of short writing. The challenge of conveying a large idea elegantly within a few pages goes to the heart of the project. (Katinka Matson’s piece on Occam’s Razor reads in its entirety, “Keep it simple.“)

Like the other Edge books, this collection will confirm ideas and challenge them, unravel the world or solidify it. The love of science and learning drips from the pages, and the authors stand in awe of instances when “mysteries fell like dominoes before the predictive power of a beautiful theory and its elegant explanation,” as Paul Saffo puts it. What might we be able to explain tomorrow?

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