Tuesday, April 28, 2020

This Idea Must Die Book Report

The book that I decided to read was “This Idea Must Die” by John Brockman. This book is a compilation of 197 replies from professors, scientists, doctors, and scholars to the question of: “which bits of science do we want to bury? Which ideas hold us back, trip us up or send us off in a futile direction?”  These serious thinkers provide in-depth insight into the greatest roadblocks to innovation, while keeping it very concise and to-the-point. Very few new ideas are developed without abandoning the old ones first; therefore, we must determine which ideas are outdated and must be retired in order to innovate and advance. With science rapidly changing and advancing, its foundation must advance as well. The hardest part is deciding what must go and what must stay, and this book helps decipher through that. Because of the wide variety of topics, and prior scientific knowledge required for some of them, I skipped around the book a little bit to find topics that I follow or am interested in. Here are a few of my favorites.

              One of my favorite ideas that, physicist and cosmologist, Max Tegmark says should be questioned or retired is infinity. He makes the claim that all of modern physics are based on the “untested assumption” that infinities even exist. There are 2 assumptions of infinities, the infinitely small and the infinitely big. The infinitely small is based on the assumption of the continuum, meaning that a finite space can contain an infinite amount of points. This follows the current premise of inflation, in which space can be stretched out indefinitely without anything bad happening. The infinitely big is based on the assumption that a space can have infinite volume and an infinitely number of time and physical objects. Under these assumptions, nobody has been able to extract sensible answers from these infinities, other than that they simply exist. Infinities are only a convenient approximation for what we really just haven’t discovered yet. His reasoning for eliminating the idea of infinities is quite convincing. He says that because we have no direct observation of infinities, and because every step in science that we have made so far has been based on finite amounts, we should just stick to what we know and what works, which is finite amounts and numbers. I liked this response because it wasn’t too hard of a concept to grasp, and Max Tegmark does a great job at breaking it down and providing analogies to explain his reasoning.
               Another response that I really enjoyed was to retire the idea of cause and effect, by physicist and computer scientist, W. Daniel Hillis. He starts off by explaining how we are natural storytellers, who like to assign credit and blame in order to make sense of things. He then proceeds to explain how science is a rich source of explanatory stories. It is tempting to believe that causes and effects are how the world works, but in reality, they just provide a framework for us to manipulate the world and construct explanations for our own convenience and satisfaction. He uses newton’s F=ma,a dn other laws of physics to explain how this convenient personification of nature helps us create a story to  complete our own understanding of the world. He uses his computer background to explain how we construct inputs to effect outputs. However, the notion of cause and effect begins to break down when the parts we like to think of as outputs affect the parts we like to think of as inputs. Many of the complex systems we know of today such as the human mind, quantum mechanics, and even transactions in the economy don’t follow the principles of cause and effect. He concludes that science needs more powerful explanatory tools for these complex systems, and tat we need to recognize that cause and effect is merely a creation of our minds, and does not exist in nature.

This video does a nice job at providing reasoning as to why cause and effect doesn’t apply to physics, and builds off of what Daniel Hillis what speaking of: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3AMCcYnAsdQ
             Finally, another chapter that I found really interesting was written by Athena Vouloumanos, who makes the claim that the idea of natural selection being the only engine of evolution should be retired. She begins by explaining Lamarckism, which is the notion that an organism could acquire a trait during a lifetime and pass that trait to its offspring. Lamarck’s favorite example of this is the evolution of a giraffe’s neck. A giraffe that ate from higher leaves could potentially develop this trait and pass it to its offspring. Experiments of intergenerational transfer of acquired traits began with Pavlov’s in 1923. Pavlov tested mice to see how fast they found hidden food, and then tested their offspring for 2 more generations. Each generation took less and less trials to find the hidden food; therefore, pavlov came to the conclusion that this was a result of an intergenerational transfer of traits. However, this study and many other early studies like this failed to acknowledge other variables, causing Lamerckism to be dismissed. In recent years, with better controlled studies being conducted, this theory has made its way back into modern evolutionary perspectives. It has fit into a relatively new field of study called epigenetics. Studies in the last decade have shown evidence that an organism’s environment and their behavior in it might cause heritable gene expression- with no change in DNA sequence passed to the offspring. If you want to learn more about epigenetic inheritance and its development in science, click the link below!
               Overall, I really enjoyed this book, and would highly recommend it to any reader who wants to explore the opinions of many incredible minds on controversial topics in science. There is some bias embedded in some of the essays, and can feel like the author is even ranting a bit, but that did not bother me very much as it is expected in a response like these. Also, like I mentioned earlier, a few of the chapters are tough to understand without extensive background knowledge on the topic, but for the most part the authors do a nice job of providing examples that the average mind can understand. The two essays that I talked about earlier, infinity and cause and effect, were among the easiest to understand if you are not familiar with many scientific theories. I am not a huge reader and don’t recommend many books, but this book was so interesting that I have already recommended it to several of my friends.

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