The Shifting Terrain of Scientific Inquiry

David Kaiser [7.13.20]

Most historians of science, certainly these days, consider themselves historians. That means we use historical methods of research. We comb through the published literature, investigate unpublished things—correspondence, notes, notebooks, grant proposals. For more recent periods, we interview people. (There's a colleague of mine who likes to say that the historian's job is reading dead people's mail, which captures a lot of what we try to do.) We are trying to figure out the texture of lived experience and how that informed the people about whose world we're trying to get our heads back into. On one hand, it is an interpretive effort squarely within the humanities and social sciences to make sense of our world in times and places gone by. With the history of science, we get to have this productive, ongoing discussion with much more contemporary events and efforts in the sciences today. Why do certain ideas take hold and become so prominent? Why do certain questions rise to prominence and get asked in one setting versus another? These are the larger questions about the present-day scientific enterprise that a lot of work in the history of science can help us better understand.

DAVID KAISER is the Germeshausen Professor of the History of Science and professor of physics at MIT. He is the author, most recently, of Quantum LegaciesDavid Kaiser's Edge Bio Page

Interrogating and Shaping the World Through Science

[6.25.20]

What I noticed over the years is that people were starting to see science as entertainment and not as a tool or a lens to understand the world. The thing that scientists do is ask great questions. We need people who can interrogate and probe the world so they can develop their muscle of being critical thinkers. I saw that missing. I thought that I was becoming part of the problem of just showing science's entertainment with great demonstrations. I was hooking them, but I wasn't doing the next step, which is to say, “This is the enterprise of science; it's a great way to understand the world, and with it you can shape the world.” 

I've spent a lot of my energy recently thinking about how to get science to resonate with people, to make people who usually feel excluded feel included. I thought one of the best ways to do that was with stories. I like to tell a lot of stories and share the impact of materials. The reason I've taken this approach is that there are many books about technology and science that profile information and lather people with lots of details. But what I've learned in my journey is that stories are stickier. They allow people to be part of the journey, and then you just pepper in the science. You don't have to wallop people with science.

AINISSA RAMIREZ is a materials scientist and science communicator. She is the author, most recently, of The Alchemy of Us: How Humans and Matter Transformed One AnotherAinissa Ramirez's Edge Bio Page

Computation All the Way Down

Stephen Wolfram [6.19.20]

We're now in this situation where people just assume that science can compute everything, that if we have all the right input data and we have the right models, science will figure it out. If we learn that our universe is fundamentally computational, that throws us right into the idea that computation is a paradigm you have to care about. The big transition was from using equations to describe how everything works to using programs and computation to describe how things work. And that's a transition that has happened after 300 years of equations. The transition time to using programs has been remarkably quick, a decade or two. One area that was a holdout, despite the transition of many fields of science into the computational models direction, was fundamental physics.

If we can firmly establish this fundamental theory of physics, we know it's computation all the way down. Once we know it's computation all the way down, we're forced to think about it computationally. One of the consequences of thinking about things computationally is this phenomenon of computational irreducibility. You can't get around it. That means we have always had the point of view that science will eventually figure out everything, but computational irreducibility says that can't work. It says that even if we know the rules for the system, it may be the case that we can't work out what that system will do any more efficiently than basically just running the system and seeing what happens, just doing the experiment so to speak. We can't have a predictive theoretical science of what's going to happen.

STEPHEN WOLFRAM is a scientist, inventor, and the founder and CEO of Wolfram Research. He is the creator of the symbolic computation program Mathematica and its programming language, Wolfram Language, as well as the knowledge engine Wolfram|Alpha. His most recent endeavor is The Wolfram Physics Project. He is also the author, most recently, of A Project to Find the Fundamental Theory of Physics. Stephen Wolfram's Edge Bio Page

How Humans Make the Earth Their Home

Laurence C. Smith [6.12.20]

Beginning in 2012, and for many summers ever since, my team and I have been helicoptering onto the Greenland ice sheet, in this fantastical melt zone. We use helicopters to string cableways over the top of rushing super glacial rivers so that we can hang this river discharge measurement technology called Acoustic Doppler Current Profiler (ADCP). We operate around the clock to collect measurements of river discharge every hour, for up to a week in duration. We have collected the world's first meltwater runoff measurements on top of the ice sheet. What we then do is simultaneously use drones and satellites to map out the upstream contributing watershed area flowing to that point where we are collecting the discharge measurements. When we know the contributing watershed area and we have the flow measurements at the bottom of the watershed, we then have a completely independent field dataset from which we can test the ability of climate models to simulate meltwater runoff from the Greenland ice sheet. And it's those models that are being used to predict the future. It's those models that are being used to estimate projected ranges of sea level rise in IPCC reports and so forth.

LAURENCE C. SMITH is the John Atwater and Diana Nelson University Professor of Environmental Studies and Professor of Earth, Environmental and Planetary Sciences at Brown University. He is the author, most recently, of Rivers of PowerLaurence C. Smith's Edge Bio Page

Best-Case and Worst-Case Scenarios

Life In the Time of COVID Jared Diamond [5.7.20]

[ED. NOTE: This is the first in a series of reflections by Edgies on the new world in which we are all living.]

My best-case scenario for what's going on now is—assuming that within the next half year, we do deal successfully with the COVID crisis—that it will become a model for people all around the world recognizing common problems, rallying together to deal with a common problem. My best-case scenario is that, having defeated COVID, we will go on to attempt to defeat and succeed in defeating climate change. For that reason, I see a potential silver lining, and that's my best-case scenario for what's going on now.

Worst-case scenario is that countries try to deal one by one. There's already talk of a race to produce vaccines, where a country that has the vaccine will use the vaccine for itself in order to gain advantage rather than spreading it around the world.

JARED DIAMOND is a professor of geography at the University of California, Los Angeles. He is the author, most recently, of Upheaval: Turning Points for Nations in Crisis. Jared Diamond's Edge Bio Page

We Have the Power to Destroy Ourselves Without the Wisdom to Ensure That We Don't

Toby Ord [4.6.20]

I've been thinking about just how bright our future could be, how science knows almost no limits to what we could achieve, to the durations that we could last, to the portion of the cosmos that we could discover and explore, and to the heights of quality in each of our lives or the types of achievements we could make. . . . It's this vision of this wonderful and vast future that's at stake that inspires me to think more carefully about the risks we face now and the ways that we might imperil all of this with our actions. What things can only our generation or our children's generation do in order to protect this seed of humanity so that we can grow into something even more amazing, to protect our present and thereby protect our future?

TOBY ORD is a senior research fellow in philosophy at Oxford University and author of The Precipice: Existential Risk and the Future of HumanityToby Ord's Edge Bio Page

Remembering Freeman Dyson

Freeman Dyson [3.19.20]

Photo credit: Ann Yow

"A unique intellect—and a great and kind man." —Martin Rees

NEW!! THE REALITY CLUB: John Brockman, Esther Dyson, Martin Rees, David Kaiser, George Dyson, Jennifer Jacquet, Max Tegmark, Rich Muller, Susan Schneider, Gino Segre, Frank Tipler, Danny Hillis, Brian Keating, Lee Smolin, John Brockman


DAWKINS & DYSON: AN EXCHANGE

In July 2007, Freeman wrote a provocative essay in the New York Review of Books entitled "Our Biotech Future" in which he wrote: 

Biology is now bigger than physics, as measured by the size of budgets, by the size of the workforce, or by the output of major discoveries; and biology is likely to remain the biggest part of science through the twenty-first century. Biology is also more important than physics, as measured by its economic consequences, by its ethical implications, or by its effects on human welfare.

These facts raise an interesting question. Will the domestication of high technology, which we have seen marching from triumph to triumph with the advent of personal computers and GPS receivers and digital cameras, soon be extended from physical technology to biotechnology? I believe that the answer to this question is yes. Here I am bold enough to make a definite prediction. I predict that the domestication of biotechnology will dominate our lives during the next fifty years at least as much as the domestication of computers has dominated our lives during the previous fifty years.

Citing the work of Carl Woese, an expert in the field of microbial taxonomy, and Nigel Goldenfeld, a physicist, Freeman called for "a new biology for a new century":

Woese’s main theme is the obsolescence of reductionist biology as it has been practiced for the last hundred years, with its assumption that biological processes can be understood by studying genes and molecules. What is needed instead is a new synthetic biology based on emergent patterns of organization. Aside from his main theme, he raises another important question. When did Darwinian evolution begin? By Darwinian evolution he means evolution as Darwin understood it, based on the competition for survival of noninterbreeding species. He presents evidence that Darwinian evolution does not go back to the beginning of life. When we compare genomes of ancient lineages of living creatures, we find evidence of numerous transfers of genetic information from one lineage to another. In early times, horizontal gene transfer, the sharing of genes between unrelated species, was prevalent. It becomes more prevalent the further back you go in time.

Whatever Carl Woese writes, even in a speculative vein, needs to be taken seriously. In his "New Biology" article, he is postulating a golden age of pre-Darwinian life, when horizontal gene transfer was universal and separate species did not yet exist. Life was then a community of cells of various kinds, sharing their genetic information so that clever chemical tricks and catalytic processes invented by one creature could be inherited by all of them. Evolution was a communal affair, the whole community advancing in metabolic and reproductive efficiency as the genes of the most efficient cells were shared. Evolution could be rapid, as new chemical devices could be evolved simultaneously by cells of different kinds working in parallel and then reassembled in a single cell by horizontal gene transfer.

Freeman's article appeared in July 2007. The following month, I hosted a seminar at Eastover Farm to explore new definitions of life required by the recent advances in genomics. I invited three of the participants—Freeman, and genomic pioneers George Church and J. Craig Venter—to come up a day early in order to spend time discussing and evaluating the import of Freeman's essay. It was interesting that Freeman, a mathematician and physicist, was now making pronouncements about evolution. Why would the mainstream evolutionary biologists care about what he has to say?

What better way to find out than to ask Richard Dawkins, the author of The Selfish Gene, and the standard bearer of Darwinism. I wrote to Richard and asked if he would comment on Freeman's ideas about horizontal evolution and "the end of the Darwinian interlude." Richard promptly responded (while noting that his hastily written piece was solely for the purpose of the meeting).  

The Nature of Moral Motivation

Patricia S. Churchland [10.16.19]

Although we have made tremendous progress in understanding many details of the brain, there are huge gaps in our knowledge. What's relevant to me, as somebody who's interested in the nature of moral behavior, is how little we understand about the nature of reasoning, or if I may use a different expression, problem solving. I don't know what reasoning is. For a long time, people seemed to think it was completely separate from emotion, but we know that can't be true.

The nature of problem solving is something that is still very much in the pioneering stages in neuroscience. It's a place where neuroscience and psychology can cooperate to get interesting experimental paradigms so that we can attack the question: How is it that, out of all these constraints and factors, a reasonable decision can be made? That's a tough one. It will require us to find good experimental paradigms and new techniques.

PATRICIA S. CHURCHLAND is professor emeritus of philosophy at the University of California, San Diego, and adjunct professor at the Salk Institute. Her research has centered on the interface between neuroscience and philosophy, with a current focus on the association of morality and the social brain. She is the author of Conscience: The Origins of Moral IntuitionPatricia S. Churchland's Edge Bio Page

Rethinking Our Vision of Success

Robert Pollack [10.10.19]

How do we understand that our 100,000-fold excess of numbers on this planet, plus what we do to feed ourselves, makes us a tumor on the body of the planet? I don't want the future that involves some end to us, which is a kind of surgery of the planet. That's not anybody's wish. How do we revert ourselves to normal while we can? How do we re-enter the world of natural selection, not by punishing each other, but by volunteering to take success as meaning success and survival of the future, not success in stuff now? How do we do that? We don't have a language for that.

ROBERT POLLACK is a professor of biological sciences, and also serves as director of the University Seminars at Columbia University (on sabbatical for academic year 2019-2020). He is the author of The Course of Nature, a book of drawings by the artist Amy Pollack, accompanied by his short explanatory essays. Robert Pollack's Edge Bio Page

A Post-Galilean Paradigm

Philip Goff [9.24.19]

We're now going through a phase of history where people are so blown away at the success of physical science and the wonderful technology it's produced that they've forgotten its philosophical underpinnings. They've forgotten its inherent limitations. If we want a science of consciousness, we need to move beyond Galileo. We need to move to what I call a post-Galilean paradigm. We need to rethink what science is. That doesn't mean we stop doing physical science or we do physical science differently—I'm not here to tell physical scientists how to do their jobs. It does, however, mean that it's not the full story. We need physical science to encompass a more expansive conception of the scientific method. We need to adopt a worldview that can accommodate both the quantitative data of physical science and the qualitative reality of consciousness. That's essentially the problem.

Fortunately, there is a way forward. There is a framework that could allow us to make progress on this. It's inspired by certain writings from the 1920s of the philosopher Bertrand Russell and the scientist Arthur Eddington, who is incidentally the first scientist to confirm general relativity after the First World War. I'm inclined to think that these guys did in the 1920s for the science of consciousness what Darwin did in the 19th century for the science of life. It's a tragedy of history that this was completely forgotten about for a long time for various historical reasons we could talk about. But, it's recently been rediscovered in the last five or ten years in academic philosophy, and it's causing a lot of excitement and interest.

PHILIP GOFF is a philosopher and consciousness researcher at Durham University, UK, and author of Galileo's Error: Foundations for a New Science of Consciousness (forthcoming, 2019). Philip Goff's Edge Bio Page

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