John Brockman, always asking questions

Every year he asks people questions, and every year he compiles the answers. This year, the question is “What is your favorite deep, elegant, or beautiful explanation?”, and he got 188 completely different answers back.

Did he forget to ask you? Then you can leave your answer in the comments here.

(Also on Sb)


  1. Dick the Damned says

    Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection. Because it obviates the need to invent a theistic god.

  2. JimB says

    The the atoms that make up the iron in my blood were created when a star went nova. As we said in the 60’s “Whoa… Cosmic!”

  3. madarab says

    I love themodynamics. I especially love that ice water is always the same temperature no matter how much ice or how much water it contains. Boiling water is also the same temperature, but somehow that’s not quite as cool. :)

  4. says

    Plate tectonics. Explains so many disparate parts of geology and other goings-on of our planet that had been practically inexplicable (if you don’t count the head-tiltingly absurd models) up til then.

  5. jstackpo says

    #7 madarab sed: “Boiling water is also the same temperature, but somehow that’s not quite as cool.”

    Unless you live in Denver (&c.) and then it is cool(er).

  6. knut7777 says

    Garrett Odell, Making Genetic Networks Operate Robustly: Unintelligent Non-design Suffices

    I’m sure Prof. Myers could weigh in on this presentation, but with my undergraduate understanding of genetics, mathematics and computational simulation, I found his results to be astounding.

  7. mutantdragon says

    I LOVE thermodynamics. It’s elegant, beautiful and I can use it to explain every process that takes place in biochemistry — and much else besides. Truly, as Peter Atkins put it, the laws of thermodynamics are “Four Laws that Drive the Universe”.

  8. Tony says

    I just watched an episode of “The Universe” which explained how the elements are forged in the core of stars. I was simply awestruck at the idea that carbon is forged in a dying star. To think that every aspect of our physical make up was created long ago in a star is both awesome, humbling, and transcendent.

  9. harbo says

    #7 madarab
    Ice melts at 4°C, which makes the slurry the perfect temperature for beer….Who says there’s no designer?

  10. alexanderjohannesen says

    Feynman: “If your [dreamed up] theory doesn’t match experimental data, it’s wrong. It doesn’t matter who you are, or how beautiful your theory is, it’s just wrong.”

    The essence of science, and the real drive behind one of the big geniuses of our time.

  11. Gregory Greenwood says

    I have got to add my voice to the people arguing for evolutionry theory. It elegant, with profound implications for our understanding of the development of life including our own species. It is massively supported by evidence, and has made testable, accurate predictions about how genes, DNA and selection pressures interact. And finally, it has done perhaps more than any other single idea to demonstrate how utterly ridiculous the concept of a creator deity/intelligent designer really is.

    In a sense, evolutionary theory is our salvation – it is our best hope to finally leave the ignorant, craven theistic childhood of our species behind, and embrace the beauty and wonder of that which actually is, rather than languishing in a prison of our own making with bars forged from Bronze Age mythology.

  12. 'Tis Himself, OM. says

    The Urey-Miller experiment and its successors, which show amino acids and other “building blocks of life” can be assembled with simple, common chemicals and an energy source. No god required.

  13. Gregory Greenwood says

    ‘Tis Himself, OM. @ 27;

    The Urey-Miller experiment and its successors, which show amino acids and other “building blocks of life” can be assembled with simple, common chemicals and an energy source. No god required.

    And yet theists continue to claim tha there is no evidence for abiogenesis because scientists can’t make a sheep grow out of a jar of peanut butter with an electric current running through it.

    Why, it is almost as though they are wilfully ignorant and/or deliberately lying, but a xian lying for jeebus? Surely not

  14. joebiohorn says

    This perhaps stretches the meaning of “explanation”, but I well remember the sense of elation, delight and clarity when I became aware of the extensive overlap among the sets and families of genes and molecules that had been identified in studies on Drosophila developmental mutants, yeast cell-cycle mutants, growth factors (and their receptors) first recognized in tissue culture work and, finally, the emerging list of oncogenes when that field burst on the scene.

  15. says

    As my main scientific training is in physics, I think it really has to be E=mc²

    I still remember my sense of wonder back in high school that everything on the electromagnetic spectrum was basically the same. Radio, visible light, gamma radiation, X-rays… Then Maxwell’s equations tie it into magnetism, which is even more amazing, but I think they lack the simplicity to be a good answer for this question.

    But with Einstein you add in, well, everything else there is. Stuff. Matter and energy are interchangeable. Light, rainbows, the sun, the rain, the clouds and my coffee and toast and me: it’s all part of the same thing. It’s behind the awe-inspiring “we are starstuff” – stellar nucleosynthesis is all about the nuclear fusion converting matter to energy. And we are all eternal patterns of energy, too, but not in any way like the woo people think. Here’s my wave-form; it is eternally at these space-time coordinates.

  16. davem says

    e=mc squared. Simple. Elegant. Star stuff’s cool, but e=mc squared explains start stuff, so is deeper, and cooler.

  17. ikesolem says

    P.A.M Dirac’s work on quantum mechanics, incorporating Einstein’s special relativity – the Dirac Equation, which predicted the existence of antimatter.

    Plus, Dirac said this:
    “I cannot understand why we idle discussing religion. If we are honest – and scientists have to be – we must admit that religion is a jumble of false assertions, with no basis in reality. The very idea of God is a product of the human imagination. It is quite understandable why primitive people, who were so much more exposed to the overpowering forces of nature than we are today, should have personified these forces in fear and trembling. But nowadays, when we understand so many natural processes, we have no need for such solutions. . .”

    (the rest is here)

  18. Francisco Bacopa says

    Daniel Dennett’s Where am I? Is a totally accessible and non-technical essay that helps one completely understand how the mind and brain are connected through a supervenience relation rather than an identity relation.

  19. Josh, Official SpokesGay says

    Evolution by natural selection. The moment it clicked (thank you, Richard Dawkins) it was breathtaking. You realize it’s not only economical and beautiful in its simplicity (broadly), but it couldn’t be otherwise.

  20. ohioobserver says

    I love ALL explanations that are strongly supported by evidence; always have, even as a kid. I was never satisfied by explanations of the kind “I said so” whether from a parent, a teacher, a preacher, or a book. Fortunately my parents indulged this insolence; by the time I was seven my shelves were full of science books, good ones, honest ones.

    My favorite all-time explanation is atoms. It explains EVERYTHING (well,not gravity…). It puts the stake in the heart of mysticism (“vitalism” and intrinsic behavior of matter viz Aristotle) and provides a cause for observed phenomena, including such non-material stuff like light and EMR. It also is exemplified in one of my top-ten science quotes, from Feynman:

    “If, in some cataclysm, all of scientific knowledge were to be destroyed, and only one sentence passed on to the next generation of creatures, what statement would contain the most information in the fewest words? I believe it is the atomic hypothesis that

    All things are made of atoms-little particles that that move around in perpetual motion, attracting each other when they are a little distance apart, but repelling upon being squeezed into one another.

    In that one sentence, you will see, there is an enormous amount of information about the world, if just a little imagination and thinking are applied.”

  21. unclefrogy says

    my favorite explanation is always the last great one I have heard. they are all wonderful the ones that are true.
    Douglas Rushkoff–
    But that last disconnection is the important one—the sad one, in many respects. Because that’s the moment that we forget where things came from—when we forget what they represent. The simulation is put forth as reality. The invented landscape is naturalized, and then mistaken for nature.

    And it’s when we become so particularly vulnerable to illusion, abuse, and fantasy. For once we’re living in a world of created symbols and simulations, whoever has control of the map has control of our reality.
    is the one that strikes me today it lies at the root of many of our conflicts maybe.
    it certainly is at the heart of the conflict of religion. We forget like Alan Alda reminds us with Hamlet “”There are more things in heaven and earth… than are dreamed of in your philosophy.”

    we can get lost in the story the one we use to describe the world that it is made up of words and symbols and is not the world itself but a part if it.
    It will change as our understanding and our observations change.
    it can be seen as in the processes of resolving into more clarity all the time

    uncle frogy

  22. DLC says

    Einstein wins it for simple elegance, but Godidit is right up there! [/Harvey “Two-Face” Dent]

  23. csrster says

    Come on people – the secret of The Edge question is that the answers are individual and original. “I vote for Darwin/Einstein/thermodynamics” just doesn’t cut it.

    Personally I like the explanation (really an outline proof) of why most real numbers are non-computable. Real numbers are uncountable. But computer programs are countable – they are, after all, just lists of 0’s and 1’s. Therefore most real numbers can never be the output of a computer program.

    It’s simple, but it reveals that something that seems easy to understand – the set of real numbers – actually hides an untold wealth of structure.

  24. grepagni says

    Perhaps I simply don’t understand what she’s saying, but Mahzarin Banaji’s answer seems a bit weired.

    The idea that bad outcomes result from limited minds that cannot store, compute and adapt to the demands of the environment is a radically different explanation of our capacities and thereby our nature. It’s elegance and beauty comes from it placing the emphasis on the ordinary and the invisible rather than on specialness and malign motives.

    This idea is at least as old as Socrates “to know the good is to do the good” of ancient Athens. No doubt psychology has refined and quantified the idea, but I have trouble coming up with a less radical explanation of human failure.

  25. Richard Austin says

    It’s not so much an equation, but I really really love the double-slit experiment. There’s no way to discuss it without accounting for wave/particle duality, and it’s an easy way to shut down people who hate the idea of quantum mechanics.

  26. Blobulon says

    Neuroscience. Understanding that the mind is what the brain does; recognizing our biases and our tendancy to lend agency to inanimate objects is of fundamental importance.

    Pi, e=mc^2, evolution, etc are all wonderful too.