How and why “deep, beautiful, and elegant theories of how the world works” can nourish and enlighten our lives
Many of those who purchase and then begin to read this book will learn, for the first time, about Edge.org, a website offering an abundance of resources. John Brockman is the Editor of This Will Make You Smarter (2012) and This Explains Everything (2013). He is also the Editor and Publisher of Edge. As he explains, its purpose is 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.”
He goes on to suggest, “Edge is a Conversation: Edge is different from the Algonquin Roundtable or Bloomsbury Group, but it offers the same quality of intellectual adventure. Closer resemblances are the early seventeenth-century Invisible College, a precursor to the Royal Society. Its members consisted of scientists such as Robert Boyle, John Wallis, and Robert Hooke. The Society’s common theme was to acquire knowledge through experimental investigation. Another inspiration is The Lunar Society of Birmingham, an informal club of the leading cultural figures of the new industrial age — James Watt, Erasmus Darwin, Josiah Wedgewood, Joseph Priestly, and Benjamin Franklin.”
Last year, those involved with Edge were asked to respond to a question also proposed by Steven Pinker: ‘What scientific concept would improve everyone’s cognitive toolkit?” Here’s The Edge Question 2012: “WHAT IS YOUR FAVORITE DEEP, ELEGANT, OR BEAUTIFUL EXPLANATION?”
There were more than 200 online responses that were then reviewed before Brockman produced an edited selection. “In the spirit of Edge, the contributions presented here [in This Explains Everything] embrace scientific thinking in the broadest sense: as the most reliable way of gaining knowledge about anything — including such fields of inquiry as philosophy, mathematics, economics, history, language, and human behavior.” Brockman then adds, “The common thread is that a simple and nonobvious idea is proposed as the explanation for a diverse and complicated set of phenomena.”
Here in Dallas near the downtown area, there is a Farmer’s Market at which a few merchants offer slices of fresh fruit as samples. In that spirit, I now offer a few brief excerpts from contributions to The Edge Question 2012:
o Matt Ridley after realizing that DNA is a code: “Never has a mystery seemed more baffling in the morning and an explanation more obvious in the afternoon.” (Page 4)
o Richard Dawkins: “Natural selection is an averaging computer, detecting redundancies – repeat patterns – in successive worlds (successive through millions of generations) in which the species has survived (averaged over all members of the sexually reproducing species.” (8)
o Aubrey de Grey: “Reflective equilibrium gets my vote for the most elegant and beautiful explanation, because of its immense breadth of applicability and also its lack of dependence on other controversial positions. Most important, it rises above the question of cognitivism, the debate over whether there is anything such as objective morality.” (15+16)
o Joel Gold: “The dark matter of the mind, the unconscious, has the greatest psychic gravity. Ignore the dark matter of the universe and anomalies appear. Ignore the dark matter of the mind and our irrationality is inexplicable.” (23)
o Paul Steinhardt: “More recently, colleagues and I have found evidence that quasi crystals may have been among the first minerals to have formed in the solar system…Perhaps there is a lesson to be learned: While elegance and simplicity are often useful criteria for judging theories, they can sometimes mislead us into thinking we are right when we are actually infinitely wrong.” (33)
o Keith Devlin: “And why is self-organization so beautiful to my aesthetic self? Because if complex adaptive systems don’t require a blueprint, they don’t require a Blueprint Maker. If they require lightning bolts, they don’t require some hurtling lightning bolts.” (98)
o Howard Gardner on the importance of individuals: “In a planet occupied now by nearly 7 billion inhabitants, I am amazed by the difference one human being can make. Think of classical music without Mozart or Stravinsky; of painting without Caravaggio, Picasso, or Pollock; of drama without Shakespeare or Beckett.” (137)
o Christine Finn: “I admire this explanation of cultural relativity [‘dirt is a matter of place’], by the anthropologist Mary Douglas, for its clean lines and tidiness. I like its beautiful simplicity, the way it illuminates dark corners of misreading, how it highlights the counterconventional. Poking about in the dirt is exciting, and irreverent. It’s about taking what is out if bounds and making it relevant. Douglas’s explanation of ‘dirt’ makes us question the very boundaries we’re pushing.” (168)
o Lisa Randall: “The beauty of science – in the long run –is its lack of subjectivity. So answering the question ‘What is your favorite, deep, or beautiful explanation’ can be disturbing to a scientist, since the only objective words in the question are ‘what,’ ‘is,’ ‘or,’ and in an ideal world) ‘explanation.” (212)
o Michael I. Norton: “Randomized experiments are by no means a perfect tool for explanation. Some important questions simply do not lend themselves to randomized experiments, and the method in the wrong hands can cause harm…But their increasingly widespread application speaks to their flexibility in informing us how things work and why they work that way.” (333)
These are but a few of hundreds of observations that caught my eye. I realize that no brief commentary such as mine can possibly do full justice to the scope of material that is provided in this volume but I hope that I have at least suggested why I think so highly of it. I also highly recommend the aforementioned This Will Make You Smarter and, especially, checking out the ever-increasing wealth of resources at Edge.org. Thank you, John Brockman, for the thought leadership you and your Edge colleagues continue to provide. Bravo!
Alan M. Webber is an award-winning, nationally-recognized editor, author, and columnist. In 1995, he launched Fast Company magazine, a fresh, dynamic entry in the business magazine category. Headquartered in Boston, MA, the magazine became the fastest growing, most successful business magazine in history. Fast Company won two national magazine awards—one for general excellence, one for design—and Webber was named Adweek’s “Editor of the Year ” in 1999, along with co-founding editor William Taylor. Most recently, he wrote Rules of Thumb: 52 Truths for Winning at Business Without Losing Your Self. He has also been active at local, state, and national political levels, serving as policy advisor for the mayor of Portland, Oregon, writing speeches for several governors, and working as special assistant to the United States Secretary of Transportation.
Morris: Before discussing Rules of Thumb, a few general questions. First, when and why did you decide to pursue a career in journalism?
Webber: I’ve always been interested in reporting, writing, and the purposes that good journalism can serve. When I was in high school, I was editor of the high school newspaper, and we wrote editorials calling for our school (a private all-boy’s–and at the time all-white–prep school) to integrate, to accept black students. In college I became the chairman of our college newspaper. This was during the Vietnam War, and we used the newspaper to cover student attitudes to that war, but also to explore the issues on campus that went more deeply into the purposes of a liberal arts education. So I’ve always seen journalism and activism as closely linked.
Morris: Since then, what do you think have been the most significant changes i magazine publication that includes both HBR and Fast Company?
Webber: The world of publishing, in general, has been changing dramatically for the last decade or more. It’s not just the web–although the web has served to disrupt the traditional business model of publishing. It’s also reading habits of different generations, attitudes toward the media and other large institutions, and the overall pace of change that people have to contend with in their daily lives. Obviously, HBR enjoys a privileged position in the magazine world, by virtue of its relationship with the Harvard Business School. The issue there is less one of economic survival, and more of relevance and impact with a business community that will always respect the HBR brand. But will the HBR brand be in touch with and in synch with the changing concerns and composition of the business community? Fast Company, because of its unique DNA as a business magazine devoted to the them of change and innovation, should be relevant forever! But it has to face the changing economic demands of publishing.
At the moment, I’m happy to say, both magazines seem to be meeting their respective challenges head-on.
Morris: Back to HBR, for a moment. What are your fondest memories of that association?
Webber: It’s always the people. When I took over as managing editor under Ted Levitt, we went about the work of re-inventing HBR. Ted was a brilliant marketer, mentor, and writer, so he provided the leadership and the vision to guide us. Then we recruited an almost entirely new team of people to re-invigorate HBR, to re-design the look and feel of the publication, to re-engineer the architecture, the structure of each issue, to bring in new ideas for presenting business thinking to the audience. For quite a few years, we had a terrific team that was excited about creating a new conversation about the direction that business was headed in. In many respects, I think those days helped foster an innovative culture at HBR and re-connected the publication with the larger business audience that was eager to be part of a fresh dialog about how business was changing, how the world was changing, and how the pieces fit together.
Morris: Please explain the process by which you and Bill Taylor co-founded Fast Company in November, 1995.
Webber: Bill and I met at HBR; I was the managing editor and he was the most talented, brilliant, energetic editor on the staff. We began exploring the idea for a new business magazine some time after I got back from a 3-month trip to Japan in 1989-90, where I was exposed to a set of powerful forces that were transforming the world of work. Some of the things I saw could be integrated into HBR, but because of the institutional limits of HBR, some were simply outside the legitimate boundaries of the publication at that time. So in the early 1990s Bill and I started talking informally about what a new magazine could be like. Bill left HBR first, and then when I left around 1993, we got serious about what a new magazine would be like: what it would look like, how it would perform as an editorial product, what we could create that would be exciting and useful, and speak to the dramatic changes going on in business: globalization, technology, the new opportunities for individuals to make a difference in work and through their work. We raised about $550,000 from a fantastic group of first round investors, and in 1993 we put out a “beta” issue. From the feedback we got from that issue, we wrote up a second-round business plan and then showed our work to different publishing companies, looking for a business partner with whom to launch Fast Company for real. Finally we were fortunate to make a deal with Mort Zuckerman and Fred Drasner, who owned U.S. News & World Report and The Atlantic Monthly at that time. The Atlantic was in Boston, where Bill and both lived, so to launch Fast Company we borrowed office space from The Atlantic and ad sales and business staff from U.S. News, making our launch very economical. We hired a small, dedicated staff to put together our first issues, and the first “real” issue of Fast Company came out in 1995. The rest, as they say, is history!
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To read the complete interview, please click here.
Alan Webber invites you to check out these websites:
Here is an excerpt from an article written by Michael Schrage for the Harvard Business Review blog. To read the complete article, check out other articles and resources, and/or sign up for a free subscription to Harvard Business Review’s Daily Alerts, please click here.
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Was it Picasso or T.S. Eliot who declared, “Good artists borrow, great artists steal”? [click here]
Who cares? It’s a great quote and even better innovation heuristic [click here].
Productive plagiarism in the Internet era isn’t for the faint of heart. Technology’s accelerating power to textually, and contextually, track “who wrote what when” has digitally updated the aphorism to “Good artists borrow, great artists steal…and get caught.”
The New York Times recently posted a hilarious piece exploring the cat-and-mouse countermeasure competition between college students and faculty in calling out cheaters. The Facebook generation’s ability to sneakily transform any mobile device into a grade-enhancing weapon of class deception is truly remarkable. American undergraduates may not be able to parse sentences or calculate percents but let no one discount their proven talent at making iPods their partners in academic crime.
Watching embattled educational empires strike back, however, is enlightening. Frustrated faculty and tech-savvy teaching assistants can be as ruthlessly innovative as their incorrigible charges. Good for them. My favorite precision-guided weapon in their arsenal is iParadigm’s Turnitin plagiarism detection service. With over 13.5 billion web pages indexed, Turnitin has become the term- paper gold-standard for faculties fed up with students who believe cut-and-paste/drag-and-drop manipulation of Wikipedia and JSTOR articles constitutes real writing and research. Turnitin’s effectiveness has successfully made plagiarism so onerous, so challenging and so risky that — surprise! — “smart” cheaters now calculate they might as well do their own work. Talk about an educational revolution…
So much for Tom Lehrer’s paean to the powers of plagiarism [click here]. Indeed, Turnitin’s corporate parent takes Lehrer’s lyrical interpretation of “research” quite seriously. The Oakland, CA firm has expanded beyond the ivory towered groves of academe into businesses where the line between “boilerplate” and “borrowing” has grown vanishingly small. The firm’s offering, iThenticate, sniffs out content copying malfeasance in publishing, government, law firms, finance and other text-intensive industries. Apparently, it’s catching on. Call it IP for IP — Innovative Protection for Intellectual Property.
There’s another spin that can be put on the software and systems for plagiarism detection and intellectual property protection. Right now, the dominant effort is to deter, or catch, a thief. I think smart organizations — organizations that care about information sharing, knowledge management, and creative collaboration — should see all this as infrastructure for creating new cultures of attribution. These technologies should be more than high-tech tools to track cheaters; they should be mechanisms for showing how organizations share ideas.
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To read the complete article, check out other articles and resources, and/or sign up for a free subscription to Harvard Business Review’s Daily Alerts, please click here.
Michael Schrage, a research fellow at MIT Sloan School’s Center for Digital Business, is the author of Serious Play and the forthcoming Getting Beyond Ideas.
Born in 1928 in Manchester, England, Johnson is an English Roman Catholic journalist, historian, speechwriter, and author. He was educated at the Jesuit independent school Stonyhurst College, and at Magdalen College, Oxford. He has more than more than 40 books in print that include:
George Washington: The Founding Father (2005)
The Renaissance: A Short History (2002)
I have just re-read Creators in which Johnson examines 17 exemplars of what he characterizes as “creative courage”: Chaucer, Dürer, Shakespeare, Bach, Turner and Hokusai, Austen, Pugin and Viollet-le-Duc, Hugo, Twain, Tiffany, Eliot, Balenciaga and Dior, and in then Picasso and Disney. The range of his interests correctly suggests the scope and depth of his erudition. Here are two brief excerpts:
Creative courage “is of many different kinds. What are we to think of the quiet, withdrawn, silent, uncomplaining courage of Emily Dickinson? She continued to write her poetry, and eventually amassed a significant oeuvre, with little or no encouragement, no guidance, and no public response, for only six short poems were published in her lifetime and these against her will. She worked essentially in isolation and solitude, a brave woman confronting the fears and agonies of creation without (or hindrance either, as perhaps she would have said).” Johnson also briefly discusses Mozart, Dickens, Caravaggio, Beethoven, Marie Cassatt, Toulouse-Lautrec, Robert Louis Stevenson, David Hume, Trollope, V.S. Pritchett, and J.B. Priestly…all of whom encountered and overcame “daunting challenges.”
“The popularity of the creative arts, and the influence they exert, will depend ultimately in their quality and allure, on the delight and excitement they generate, and on demotic choices. Picasso set his faith against nature, and burrowed within himself. Disney worked with nature, stylizing it, anthropomorphizing it, and surrealizing it, but ultimately reinforcing it. That is why his ideas form so many powerful palimpsests in the visual vocabulary of the world in the early twenty-first century, and will continue to shine through, while the ideas of Picasso, powerful thought they were for much of the twentieth century, will gradually fade and seem outmoded, as representational art returns in favor. In the end nature is the strongest force of all.”
I highly recommend Creators as well as Howard Gardner’s Creating Minds in which he examines the lives and achievements of Freud, Einstein, Picasso, Stravinsky, Eliot, Graham, and Gandhi.