BOOK REVIEW: This Explains Everything ed. by John Brockman

This Explains Everything: Deep, Beautiful, and Elegant Theories of How the World WorksThis Explains Everything: Deep, Beautiful, and Elegant Theories of How the World Works by John Brockman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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A theory that explains a lot with a clear and simple set of ideas is much beloved by scientists and social scientists alike. In this book, about 150 renowned thinkers were asked what theory they thought explained the most with the least. Every year, (the online face of an Algonquin Round Table-like group called “The Reality Club”) produces a question to direct toward members, and this book resulted from the 2012 question. The editor, John Brockman, had his work cut out for him given limited space and the fact that a few theories (e.g. Darwinian Evolution) would be rehashed ad nauseam without coordination. (Many authors sited Darwin, even if they weren’t discussing evolution because they knew it’d already been addressed from many angles.)

The contributors are a veritable who’s who of science, and include: Matt Ridley, Richard Dawkins, Leonard Susskind, Frank Wilczek, Steven Pinker, Martin J. Rees, Max Tegmark, Freeman Dyson, V.S. Ramachandran, David Eagleman, Robert Sapolsky, Richard Thaler, Daniel Dennett, Howard Gardener, Lisa Randall, Eric R. Kandel, Alison Gopnik, Lee Smolin, Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Jared Diamond, and Michael Shermer. One may note that not all of the authors are, strictly-speaking, scientists. The book even ventures into the arts and humanities, including contributors such as Alan Alda and Brian Eno. Of course, this means that the book sometimes veers away from theories that have explanatory power on the scale of natural selection or the neat offerings of physics and chemistry, but these entries often provide some intriguing food-for-thought.

All of the entries are short; some are less than a page and most are less than three. Given the range of authors, the approaches and the degree of colorfulness employed in entries varies greatly. There are few graphics and no ancillary matter (notations or bibliography) except for an editor’s introduction. It’s good bathroom reading, or for any other time when one has a couple free minutes to take in an idea.

I enjoyed this book, and found it thought-provoking. Often it wasn’t the expected theories (i.e. the most parsimonious) that provided the greatest revelatory insights. There were even responses that challenged the nature of the question. One won’t necessarily find all the responses present elegant theories, or that all of them even are theories, but that’s not the point. They are all ideas that have merit in some regard. One will see old standards (e.g. the 2nd law of thermodynamics) from new angles and will be exposed to ideas that might be entirely new (e.g. the Faurie-Raymond hypothesis that suggests the advantage of lefties in fighting.) I found essays on swarm intelligence and frames of reference taking my thinking in new directions.

I’d recommend this book for those looking for some interesting thinking on elegant ideas.

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