190 Thinkers Answer the Question: “What is Your Favorite Deep, Elegant, or Beautiful Explanation?”

It’s a new year, which means it’s time for the Edge.org to pose its annu­al ques­tion to some of the world’s finest minds. The 2012 edi­tion asks the ques­tion, “What is Your Favorite Deep, Ele­gant, or Beau­ti­ful Expla­na­tion?” And the replies — 190 in total — fea­ture thoughts by Sher­ry TurkleRobert Sapol­skySteven Pinker, and Daniel Den­nett, plus the ones excerpt­ed below. If you’re will­ing to ven­ture down the rab­bit hole, you can access the com­plete col­lec­tion of respons­es here.

Where did we come from? I find the expla­na­tion that we were made in stars [that we are all star­dust] to be deep, ele­gant, and beau­ti­ful. This expla­na­tion says that every atom in each of our bod­ies was built up out of small­er par­ti­cles pro­duced in the fur­naces of long-gone stars. We are the byprod­ucts of nuclear fusion. The intense pres­sures and tem­per­a­tures of these giant stoves thick­ened col­laps­ing clouds of tiny ele­men­tal bits into heav­ier bits, which once fused, were blown out into space as the fur­nace died. The heav­i­est atoms in our bones may have required more than one cycle in the star fur­naces to fat­ten up. Uncount­able num­bers of built-up atoms con­gealed into a plan­et, and a strange dis­e­qui­lib­ri­um called life swept up a sub­set of those atoms into our mor­tal shells. We are all col­lect­ed star­dust. And by a most ele­gant and remark­able trans­for­ma­tion, our starstuff is capa­ble of look­ing into the night sky to per­ceive oth­er stars shin­ing. They seem remote and dis­tant, but we are real­ly very close to them no mat­ter how many lightyears away. All that we see of each oth­er was born in a star. How beau­ti­ful is that?

Kevin Kel­ly, Wired co-founderhere and don’t miss Susskind’s com­plete physics lec­tures here].

Leonard Susskind, Physics Pro­fes­sor, Stan­ford.

[T]here is one ele­gant and deep state­ment (which, alas, is not quite an “expla­na­tion”) … that I find very use­ful as well as beau­ti­ful­ly sim­ple.

I refer to the well-known lines Lord Acton wrote in a let­ter from Naples in 1887 to the effect that: “Pow­er tends to cor­rupt, and absolute pow­er cor­rupts absolute­ly.” At least one philoso­pher of sci­ence has writ­ten that on this sen­tence an entire sci­ence of human beings could be built.

I find that the sen­tence offers the basis for explain­ing how a failed painter like Adolph Hitler and a failed sem­i­nar­i­an like Joseph Stal­in could end up with the blood of mil­lions on their hands; or how the Chi­nese emper­ors, the Roman popes, or the French aris­toc­ra­cy failed to resist the allure of pow­er. When a reli­gion or ide­ol­o­gy becomes dom­i­nant, the lack of con­trols will result in widen­ing spi­rals of license lead­ing to degra­da­tion and cor­rup­tion. [More here].

Mihaly Csik­szent­mi­ha­lyi; Psy­chol­o­gist

You can dive into the full col­lec­tion at Edge.org. The pho­to above was tak­en by Mar­co Bel­luc­ci.

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