World's Greatest Minds Answer: 'What's Your Favorite Theory?'
January 18, 2012

World’s Greatest Minds Answer: ‘What’s Your Favorite Theory?’

At the beginning of each year, master of ceremonies for the science website John Brockman asks his cadre of world-renowned thinkers to reply to a single question of eminent significance. This year, he prodded these legendary brains to answer the slightly cryptic: "What is your favorite deep, elegant or beautiful explanation?"

In previous years, Brockman has probed scientific minds to name the most important invention of the last two millennia or to explain how the Internet is changing the way we think.

At midnight on Sunday, the website published the answers to the most recent brain-teaser and, perhaps unsurprisingly, the responses from nearly 200 of the world's brightest minds tended to aggregate around two powerful scientific theories that have emerged in the last two centuries: Darwin's evolution and Einstein's relativity.

For the biologist and infamous creationist-baiter Richard Dawkins of Oxford University, "Darwin's natural selection wins hands down."

"Never in the field of human comprehension were so many facts explained by assuming so few," explained the British evolutionary biologist. While Dawkins himself is no scientific light-weight, having made significant contributions to modern evolutionary theory, he says that Darwin's observations were so powerful because they literally encompassed every aspect of biological life, showing how natural selection interacts with random genetic mutations to give rise to all forms of life.

But Einstein and his outside-the-box theory of relativity was not to be overshadowed by the iconoclastic author of On the Origin of the Species

Steve Giddings, the famed theoretical physicist at the University of California, explained his vote for Einstein by highlighting the role that his insights have had in shaping our understanding of the universe.

"This central idea [of relativity] has shaped our ideas of modern cosmology [and] given us the image of the expanding universe."

And that's not all by a long shot. General relativity is also responsible for our understanding of black holes and the bending of light. And more recently, Giddings added, it "even offers a possible explanation of the origin of our Universe - as quantum tunneling from 'nothing.'"

While evolution and relativity are – with good reason – generally familiar to even non-scientists, a number of the theories and ideas to make the list were considerably more obscure.

Renowned psychologist Alison Gopnik of the University of California, Berkeley, explained that her choice is a theory that explains the universally restless and reckless experience of adolescence. According to this explanation, two brain systems – one propelled by emotion and the other by cognition – are getting increasingly out of sync with each other during the teenage years.

The cognitive controls that allow adults to avoid impulsive behavior and delay gratification are starting to take hold later today than they did in previous generations. By contrast, the part of the brain that initiates emotional drive appears to be going into action at a younger and younger age.

The outcome, she explains, of the decoupling of these two brain systems is: "A striking number of young adults who are enormously smart and knowledgeable but directionless, who are enthusiastic and exuberant but unable to commit to a particular work or a particular love until well into their twenties or thirties."

For the neurobiologist Sam Barondes of the University of California, San Francisco, the most beautiful idea is the theory that our personalities are formed predominantly by an intricate web of factors determined by chance.

Whether it be in the dance of genes that takes place at our conception or the way our parents respond to our innate tendencies, Barondes says, it's a just a string of chances over which we have very little control.

"There is also chance in how neurodevelopmental processes unfold–a little virus here, an intrauterine event there, and you have chance all over the place," he explained in a recent interview with Reuters reporter Sharon Begley.

And ultimately, Barondes says, the enormous role played by chance in shaping the personality of every individual is chock-full of moral implications. According to him, it ought to encourage "understanding and compassion for the wide range of people with whom we share our lives."

Martin Rees, a professor of cosmology and astrophysics at the University of Cambridge, opted for a theory in the realm of physics, albeit one slightly less well-known than relativity.

For Rees, the idea that our universe may be "hugely more extensive" than astronomers currently speculate is a source of perpetual wonder. The idea, which postulates that our universe might simply be "a tiny part of the aftermath of 'our' big bang, which is itself just one bang among a perhaps-infinite ensemble", is loaded with mind-boggling inferences. For instance, what we consider inviolable 'laws of nature' might not hold for another universe. They may just be 'local laws', so to speak.

In its 'instructions' to participants, intentionally left the question open-ended, stating that: "Since this question is about explanation, answers may embrace scientific thinking in the broadest sense: as the most reliable way of gaining knowledge about anything."

And that category "anything" might include "other fields of inquiry such as philosophy, mathematics, economics, history, political theory, literary theory, or the human spirit. The only requirement is that some simple and non-obvious ideas explain some diverse and complicated set of phenomena."


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