This Idea Must Die: Scientific Theories That Are Blocking Progress

Editor: John Brockman
Publisher: Harper Perennial

Have you ever got into an argument with a friend just because the two of you were being protective over your differing perceptions? You’re not alone. We’ve all got our preconceived notions that sometimes do us more harm than good, and sometimes, the best thing you can do for yourself is to unlearn old truths.

The essential thrust of This Idea Must Die: Scientific Theories That Are Blocking Progress works along those lines; it’s a collection of 175 essays by writers, scientists, artists, philosophers, economists and more, all exploring what needs to be let go of to let fresh new thoughts in.

In bite-size chunks (the shortest essay, science historian George Dyson’s take on science and technology and how they can be separated, is a mere half-page), the mini-essays and jottings and concise thought processes in This Idea Must Die make for a book that’s both versatile and meandering in the loveliest of ways. You can read from the start like an old fogey, or you can skip from essay to essay as a millennial is likely wont to do.

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It’s not often you get to use the word “toilet” in a compliment (“You make me so nervous I want to go to the toilet” didn’t quite work on that cute boy I met last week), but this book is toilet reading at its very best: gripping but without commitment.

(That’s not to say that This Idea Must Die is exclusively the stuff of your daily ablutions – I read it in a cafe, a bar, at work and on a train, each time with great enjoyment.)

Physics, religion, linguistics, standard deviation (classic Nassim Nicholas Taleb for you, calling out journalists and data scientists in the same breath while elevating Mandelbrot), race – there’s a little bit of everything in This Idea Must Die.

But don’t worry – it’s not all clever stuff that needs a minute or two to digest. There are lighter things to read in this, like the great Ian McEwan arguing that nothing should be retired, or anthropologist and author Dr Helen Fisher discussing romantic love and addiction.

Because I know I’ve got your attention with that last item, I’ll expand: Fisher, drawing partly from her own research, posits that love is a natural addiction that motivates us to focus time and energy on a single partner at a time – a nice change from the “monogamy isn’t natural” party line thrown about these days. Somewhere, Robert Palmer is grinning.

Another lovely piece is psychology professor Dr David M. Buss rubbishing the notion that beauty is in the eye of the beholder: while many (including myself) may not necessarily agree, his analysis of fertility cues and cross-cultural variability in attractiveness makes you want to go read up a little bit more on what makes you beautiful (and it’s not that you don’t know you’re beautiful, sorry One Direction).

Naturally not every idea in this book will resonate with every reader – which is fine and good and the way it should be. But each essay is certainly controversial in its own way, a good multi-disciplinary jump-off point to learn more about string theory or (accept it) natural selection.

Buy this book. Carry it around. Read it when you can. It may offend you in some parts, but it’ll make you laugh or think or maybe shed a tear in others – because science? Science is just that damn beautiful.