Deep, Elegant or Beautiful Explanations

Great Minds

Let me start off by saying that this post has nothing to do with yin and yang, or India for that matter (except that a piece in the Times of India intrigued, then pointed me in the right direction and opened up a new world of insights).  It’s just so cool and awesome that I had to write about it. Perhaps it’s because I love listening to other people – especially those that might be different, better, learned, wise or simply great minds.

So, what is this about?

First, I am going to talk about something published elsewhere – at this one-of-a-kind site called  Even its name is captivating, giving you a feel for its edgy content, and the idea that this is definitely not where you go for your normal run of the mill prose. To find out what this site is all about, the best place to go is their About page. It’s both articulate and complete; here are a few tidbits to give you a taste –

Edge is a Conversation.

…was launched in 1996 as the online version of “The Reality Club,” an informal gathering of intellectuals…

…at its core, consists of the scientists, artists, philosophers, technologists, and entrepreneurs who are at the center of today’s intellectual, technological, and scientific landscape.

…consists of individuals who create their own reality

In the words of the novelist Ian McEwan, offers “open-minded, free ranging, intellectually playful … an unadorned pleasure in curiosity, a collective expression of wonder at the living and inanimate world … an ongoing and thrilling colloquium.”

And as the byline states:

To arrive at the edge of the world’s knowledge, seek out the most complex and sophisticated minds, put them in a room together, and have them ask each other the questions they are asking themselves.

By now, you should be intrigued enough to check it out for yourself! 

The Edge Annual Question

But, that’s only part of what I am writing about. Every year, Edge comes out with an annual question that is sent out to accomplished scientists and intellectuals for their inimitable, unique perspectives. This year’s Edge question was:

What is your favorite deep, elegant or beautiful explanation?

The answers are as diverse and fascinating as the 192 contributors that responded. You may even be familiar with a few of these notable people – Richard Dawkins, Vilayanur Ramachandran, Nathan Myhrvold, Tim O’Reilly, John Naughton, Alan Alda and Clay Shirke, just to name a few.  

And then there were some that I was hearing about for the first time, but all with impeccable credentials and thought-provoking contributions.  There are cosmologists, computer scientists, sociologists, neuroscientists, neurobiologists, psychologists, paleontologists, entrepreneurs, and on and on – all who took the time to think about and answer this Edge question.

A Small Sampling of Great Answers 

Obviously, I’m not going to write about what everyone said or even what a few of them said. Each contributor has written a short essay, plus or minus one page. But, I will give you another taste using some random snippets from various (eloquent!) answers, just to entice you to check it out for yourself, on your own time. To reiterate, the question they were all answering is:

What is your favorite deep, elegant or beautiful explanation?

Like Attracts Like

The beauty of this explanation is twofold. First, it accounts for the complex organization of the cerebral cortex (the most recent evolutionary component of the brain) using a very simple rule. Second, it deals with scaling issues very well, and indeed it also accounts for a specific phenomenon in a widespread human behavior, imitation. It explains how neurons packed themselves in the cerebral cortex and how humans relate to each other. Not a small feat.

Life is a Digital Code

Indeed, the problem had just got even more baffling thanks to the realization that DNA played a crucial role—and DNA was monotonously simple. All the explanations of life before 28 Feb 1953 are hand-waving waffle and might as well speak of protoplasm and vital sparks for all the insights they gave.

Redundancy Reduction and Pattern Recognition

Deep, elegant, beautiful? Part of what makes a theory elegant is its power to explain much while assuming little. Here, Darwin’s natural selection wins hands down.

Physical Reality Could Be Hugely More Extensive Than the Patch of Space and Time Traditionally Called ‘The Universe’

We’ve learnt that we live in just one planetary system among billions, in one galaxy among billions. But now that’s not all. The entire panorama that astronomers can observe could be a tiny part of the aftermath of ‘our’ big bang, which is itself just one bang among a perhaps-infinite ensemble.

Implications of Ivan Pavlov’s Great Discovery

In fact, classical conditioning is a form of “implicit learning.” As such, it allows us to navigate through life with less cognitive effort (and stress) than would otherwise be required. Nevertheless, this sort of conditioning has byproducts that can be powerful, surprising, and even sometimes dangerous.

Why We Feel Pressed for Time

As it turns out, there is very little evidence that people are now working more and relaxing less than they did in earlier decades. In fact, some of the best studies suggest just the opposite. So, why do people report feeling so pressed for time?

So much great thinking, so little time!

These are all just random morsels (except for the one by Richard Dawkins which I hand-picked; no points for guessing which one that is!). I could go on and on.  But all I wanted to do is to peak your interest and have you take some time to check out this fascinating compilation.

Here’s such a great, stimulating resource for people – and it’s all free at a simple touch of a button (rather like the TED talks). Imagine!  The only negative feeling I have is that there’s so much great stuff out there, and so little time to devour it all…

Having said that though, if I were you, I would make the time for this.



P.S. The Edge has been publishing books compiling the answers to intriguing questions from diverse, interesting, intellectual personalities. They have books with such intriguing titles as – Is the Internet changing the way you think? and What are you optimistic about? Undoubtedly, this year’s question and its almost 200 answers will also be compiled into a book for easy reading, sooner or later. Can’t wait!



Posted on January 20, 2012, in india and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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