John Brockman Editor 2015. This Idea Must Die. Scientific theories that are blocking progress. New York: Harper Perennial. 567 pp.
No fewer that 175 chapters by an eclectic variety of scientists and other academics, novelists and publishers. Each was asked to write on a scientific theory that is blocking progress. These chapters were apparently first published at the Edge Foundation web site where much similar material can be found and from which many dozens of new reading directions will emerge. As with this book.
For the cosmologically-inclined, physicists such as Lee Smolin, Max Tegmark and David Deutsch are included, but so are Alan Alda and Ian McEwan along with a host unknown to me. There are economists, biologists, psychologists, and some who are hard to categorise. It would be surprising if any single reader knew all the contributors, which gets the volume a big tick.
Chapters are typically 2-3 pages and very conducive to bed-time reading. However, the acute brevity of each chapter is also a weakness. There are only two and a bit pages of supporting references for the whole volume and most chapter authors have provided none at all so the reader who wants supporting information (or alternative views) will need to do their own searching. Many chapters have the flavour of being controversial for the sake of it. A bit more depth (and some further reading suggestions) would alleviate this.
For example Max Tegmark devotes his chapter to the thought that infinity is no longer a useful concept. Given that so much recent writing on advances in cosmology and the search for a “theory of everything” (for example Max Tegmark’s own Our Mathematical Universe and David Deutsch’s The Beginning of Infinity) seems to depend heavily on arguments based on the implications of infinity, just a little more development of such a contrary viewpoint would have been worthwhile.
Some chapters advance statements that are very hard to agree with. For example Samuel Barondes (a professor in neurobiology and psychiatry) takes aim at Max Planck’s statement that “Science advances by funerals”. Anyone who is familiar with the reception from mainstream scientists of their day to the revolutionary (yet now themselves mainstream) theories of Alfred Wegener or Thomas Gold just to name two, would have to agree with Planck. As, of course, would Thomas Kuhn. Samuel Barondes seems to think that science has now, finally, reached a utopian state where theories are assessed on the evidence and that reputations, publication lists and status are of no import. Naive.
Victoria Wyatt wastes 3 pages on a call for use of the “rocket scientist” cliché to cease. Well, really. Consult the title and it is clear such opinions on English usage are not theories or ideas and have no place in this collection. The editor should have excercised much more quality control and held this over for a future volume “This Cliché Must Die” (I advise a much shorter print run for that one). There are plenty of other soft targets: Numbering nature (Kurt Gray), IQ (Scott Atran) and Only scientists can do science (Kate Mills) for example.
It would be tedious to continue to award gratuitous ticks and crosses against these contributions. Instead I wish for fewer, longer chapters and preferably a format that allows alternative views (which abound through the book) to be presented as an exchange between their advocates. For example there are a series of chapters on aspects of conciousness, artificial intelligence and related questions; some interesting ideas are discussed but the chapters are so frustratingly short that they are barely more than opinions. A reader quickly begins to wish to hear a debate between opposing views. And supporting evidence, not just opinions. Likewise, the barest tip of topics of cosmology feature extensively (The laws of physics are predetermined, String theory, The Big Bang was the first moment of time and many more) but the vast bulk of the cosmological iceberg remains out of sight, unacknowledged.
In the end, tanatlising, thought-provoking now and then, but ultimately a frustration.