A little knowledge is a dangerous thing, or so the saying goes. If we are to take such warnings literally then the latest in an increasingly long list of books edited by John Brockman should be handled with care. But if science teaches us anything it is to question everything and to take trite adages and metaphors with a grain of salt.
The books are a part of a series that compiles essays from Edge.org – sometimes dubbed “the world’s smartest website” – that Brockman launched in 1996 and where he asks top academics and popular thinkers to write about a given theme by posing a question.
Previous books in the series that I reviewed here in 2016 examined artificial intelligence and genetics: What To Think About Machines That Think (online at tinyurl.com/star2-machines) and Life: The Leading Edge Of Evolutionary Biology, Genetics, Anthropology, And Environmental Science (online at tinyurl.com/star2-life).
Food For Thought
The question Brockman asks in This Idea Is Brilliant is: “What scientific term or concept ought to be more widely known?”
There are 206 contributors (yes, you read that correctly) to this collection. At just over 500 pages long, that makes an average of fewer than two and a half pages per featured writer.
As such, the answers to Brockman’s question, while conveniently bite-sized, don’t, and can’t, go into a lot of depth. This is both the book’s strength and weakness.
On the one hand, all the reader gets is a taste or teaser. On the other hand the smorgasbord is vast and the number of concepts featured here is large enough to satisfy, and also potentially overload, even the most voracious minds.
Though some of the featured pieces are roughly grouped together with analogous topics, this is a book to be dipped into rather than read from cover to cover.
Representation And Diversity
While reading I wondered, as I have wondered previously when reading other books he edited, if Brockman deliberately underrepresents women’s contribution to STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics).
For example, Life: The Leading Edge Of Evolutionary Biology, Genetics, Anthropology, And Environmental Science didn’t contain a single entry written by a woman. Out of a total of 206 articles featured in This Idea Is Brilliant I counted only 44 written by women, or barely over 20%.
A little auxiliary research reveals that this percentage is actually a fairly accurate representation of the number of women working in the STEM fields in North America and Europe, reinforcing and reflecting the reality that science and science writing is still a largely male-dominated field.
Interestingly, the numbers for Malaysia tell a very different story, with Unesco claiming that as of 2011 almost 50% of students enrolled in science programmes in Malaysia are female. (Unesco is the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation.)
A Gathering Of The Minds
Many of the contributors will be familiar to readers of Brockman’s books, or to readers of popular science books in general, with many of the usual suspects making an appearance, including Aubrey de Grey, Daniel Dennet, Jared Diamond, Robert Sapolsky and Steven Pinker, and of course the ubiquitous and contentious Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris.
Other well-known names, though less known for scientific endeavours, include Man Booker Prize for Fiction-winning author Ian McEwan, and musician Brian Eno whose Long Now Foundation is a fascinating project and worth looking into if you’re interested in long-term thinking.
Some of the topics featured in This Idea Is Brilliant are a bit daunting to the uninitiated. Exaptation, Antagonistic Pleiotropy, Rheology, Simulated Annealing, Neotony, Peircean Semiotics, Non-Ergodic, Iatropic Stimulus, are among the more opaque titles. But the goal of this book is precisely to take these imposing terms and concepts and demystify them in a (relatively) accessible manner. For the most part the writers succeed.
A Trove Of Insight
While nominally “science writing”, there are a huge number of subjects covered, with everything from evolutionary psychology to quantum physics, to mathematics and software, and much more besides.
Though it only takes a few minutes to superficially read each piece, some offer a lot to chew on. Indeed, a few pieces defy digestion regardless the amount of mastication. Others are bland and instantly forgotten.
But these few uneven notes are easy to forgive given the sheer quantity of essays included in this book.
It is impossible to come away from reading This Idea Is Brilliant without a greater respect for the near incomprehensible vastness of the field of scientific enquiry and a humbling realisation at the depth of ignorance the reader might have towards so many subjects.
This book is a veritable treasure trove of thought, a sort of modern vade mecum, guaranteed to broaden the reader’s horizons.
This Idea Is Brilliant: Lost, Overlooked, And Underappreciated Scientific Concepts Everyone Should Know
Editor: John Brockman
Publisher: Harper Perennial, nonfiction anthology of science