Sunday, January 01, 2017

The 2017 Edge Annual Question: Which Scientific Term or Concept Ought To Be More Widely Known?

My first thought when I heard the 2017 Edge Annual Question was “Wasn’t that last year's question?” It wasn’t. But it’s almost identical to the 2011 question, “What scientific concept would improve everybody’s cognitive toolkit.” That’s ok, I guess, the internet has an estimated memory of 2 days, so after 5 years it’s reasonable to assume nobody will remember their improved toolkit.

After that first thought, the reply that came to my mind was “Effective Field Theory,” immediately followed by “But Sean Carroll will cover that.” He didn’t, he went instead for “Bayes's Theorem.” But Lisa Randall went for “Effective Theory.”

I then considered, in that order, “Free Will,” “Emergence," and “Determinism,” only to discard them again because each of these would have required me to first explain effective field theory. You find “Emergence” explained by Garrett Lisi, and determinism and free will (or its absence, respectively), is taken on by Jerry A. Coyne, whom I don’t know, but I entirely agree with his essay. My argument would have been almost identical, you can read my blogpost about free will here.

Next I reasoned that this question calls for a broader answer, so I thought of “uncertainty” and then science itself, but decided that had been said often enough. Lawrence Krauss went for uncertainty. You find Scientific Realism represented by Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, and the scientist by Stuart Firestein.

I then briefly considered social and cognitive biases, but was pretty convinced these would be well-represented by people who know more about sociology than me. Then I despaired for a bit over my unoriginality.

Back to my own terrain, I decided the one thing that everybody should know about physics is the principle of least action. The name hides its broader implications though, so I instead went for “Optimization.” A good move, because Janna Levin went for “The Principle of Least Action.”

I haven’t read all essays, but it’ll be a nice way to start the new year by browsing them. Happy New Year everybody!


  1. Happy New Year, Bee and all! 2017 is a prime number. 2017, 2027, 2029, 2039, 2053, 2063, 2069, 2081, 2083, 2087, 2089, 2099 with three twin primes in the run of twelve.

  2. Did all of you decide before hand what each of you was going to cover and make sure no two people cover the same topic?
    Happy new year to you and everyone

  3. "You find Scientific Realism represented by Rebecca Newberger Goldstein"

    The link is dead.

  4. The dead link is

    What is the correct one?

  5. Hi Phillip,

    Sorry about that. The correct link is here.

  6. Thanks for the post - but:

    I was a little dismayed to see you praising Jerry Coyne's essay, but wasn't planning to comment on it - until I saw the following by Scott Aaronson at "Shtetl-Optimized":
    Coyne, who’s written many things I admire, here offers his version of an old argument that I tear my hair out every time I read. There’s no free will, Coyne says, and therefore we should treat criminals more lightly, e.g. by eschewing harsh punishments in favor of rehabilitation. Following tradition, Coyne never engages the obvious reply, which is: “sorry, to whom were you addressing that argument? To me, the jailer? To the judge? The jury? Voters? Were you addressing us as moral agents, for whom the concept of ‘should’ is relevant? Then why shouldn’t we address the criminals the same way?”
    Or as I would have put, either we are capable of learning from mistakes and factoring possible adverse consequences into our decisions or we aren't. If we aren't there is no use in even discussing the issue, but if we are, then we remain responsible for our actions and some (humane) punishment may be beneficial to society, just as negative feedback is beneficial in a control circuit.

    Also, the last time I tried to engage Dr. Coyne on this issue, he seemed adamant that there was no possibility of a random component in decision-making which would undermine strict deterministic predictability, which I thought differs slightly from your position.

  7. JimV,

    I hadn't encountered Coyne's writing before (at least not that I recall). I don't subscribe to the conclusions he comes to regarding criminal sentences, I think that's a very difficult question which can't easily be answered. However, I do think it's something that looks very different in light of the absence of free will and therefore must be reconsidered.

    I agree with what you say regarding factoring in possible adverse consequences.

    Yes, that's right, there could be a random component in decision making. That doesn't mean there's free will either though. Best,


  8. As for Coyne, you're not missing much. At his blog, he posts links mainly to things that his readers have already seen in many cases, preaching to the choir. He allows two types of comments on his blog: people who agree with him and people who don't but are jerks. Both make him look good. People who have a different opinion but logically and civilly defend it (and abide by "da roolz") are banned. I know that it is his blog and he can do what he wants, but I find it rather ironic that he otherwise claims to be a supporter of free speech even if it offends people. This is sad because otherwise he seems pretty sensible. In particular, his take on free will pretty much agrees with yours. (He's a retired professor of evolutionary biology.)

    Many people misunderstand the relation between free will and crime and punishment. No civilized criminal-justice system is based on wrath or vengeance. Punishment has three reasons: protecting society from people known to be dangerous, deterrent, and rehabilitation. For none of these is it relevant whether the criminal has free will. Free will does not mean "the criminal will commit the crime in any case" but "given certain conditions, the criminal will commit the crime". As society, we can change those conditions to influence behaviour. To what extent particular criminal-justice systems are successful is a different matter. Presumably, success means that the criminal, once released, does not commit a crime again. By this criterion, Norwegian jails are the best, despite or more likely because the standard of living there is higher than that of many people in many countries who are not in jail.

  9. Free will does not mean "the criminal will commit the crime in any case" but "given certain conditions, the criminal will commit the crime".

    This should be : Lack of free will does not mean "the criminal will commit the crime in any case" but "given certain conditions, the criminal will commit the crime".

  10. Phillip,

    Yes, I agree - and that's why it's relevant to have this discussion. Every crime is to some extent caused by circumstances, and tearing apart the circumstances from the persons's built-in information processing is relevant to figuring out how to best avoid recurrence. Not that that's news, but accepting that there's no free will imo highlights that we're strongly shaped by the information we receive throughout our life. Best,


  11. Morning here Bee

    Thanks for posting about the Edge Essays. Nice to find the many different way bright folks come at the question.

    In your own on Opitmization you state: “A quantum system doesn’t only do one thing at a time; it does everything that’s possible, all at the same time.”

    Is there a proper name for this characteristic behavior?


  12. Well, another question occurs with the resurrection of the free will debate here.

    Has the reality of the block universe projection been tested experimentally?

    Again thank you.

  13. As long as I am making my own decisions based on my own motivations, and not under some other entity's hypnotic control, then by my definition I have "free will" - my will is free. That "will" or motivations might or might not be predictable (I like to think there is some random element, because a universe which could be played over and over again with slightly different results seems like a better universe, like a good computer game), but as long as it's my will and not somebody else's, I'm satisfied.

    Where I would disagree with some is whether "will" implies some mystical influence on the universe. I think it has those connotations historically, because people thought they moved their limbs by "will" magically, whereas now we know that electro-chemical signals pass from our brains to our muscles. Nobody can "will" 1+1 to be anything but 2. If that's what some people mean by "free will" than nothing has it or could possibly have it, I think.

    By my definition, a sufficiently-sophisticated computer program - one which can make complex decisions from recorded data and basic sensory input - also has "free will" as long as it is operating autonomously. (It might or might not have much of a personality, though.)

    So therefore I've never understood what philosophers or theologians think they're arguing about concerning free will. It is a fault in my education, but there are so many other things I'd rather learn about that I haven't bothered to correct it.

  14. Auto-adaptive answers to questions posed earlier:

    Q: “A quantum system doesn’t only do one thing at a time; it does everything that’s possible, all at the same time.” Is there a proper name for this characteristic behavior?

    A: The (Feynman) path-integral formalism of quantum field theory.

    Q: Has the reality of the block universe projection been tested experimentally?

    A: The jury is out; opinion is divided between whether the question is one of physics or philosophy, i.e., “… it's not physics, it's philosophy. If you want a clear explanation of it, you should ask a philosopher.”

  15. Don,

    Sorry, must have missed your question. Yes, that sentence refers to the path integral. You can also use it in quantum mechanics, not only quantum field theory.

    I don't know what you mean by 'block universe projection'.

  16. Thank you.
    By "block universe projection" I mean the logical consequence of special relativity which suggests that, due to the paradox of different time ordering of events by different observers, the universe is more accurately viewed as a 'frozen' 4D construct rather than one in which time is evolving. That is as clearly as I can understand it.

  17. I have no idea what you mean with 'time is evolving'. Time is what parameterizes evolution, you can't parameterize time's own evolution with itself, that doesn't make any sense.

  18. The "paradox of different time ordering of events by different observers" is just that information about the events arrives in different orderings, isn't it? Again, I am missing the problem. For example, I can learn about somebody's death before I learn what was in their will, even though the will was written before the death occurred. So I don't see the paradox.

    The block universe concept seems to involve more, though, as it implies the future as well as the past is fixed. I think this arose from the common saying that the laws (equations) of physics are time-symmetric, so they don't privilege the past over the future. Which I also disagree with. Take Newton's Law F = d(mv)/dt, for example.

    When you have a known curve y=F(t), say a polynomial, whose past and future relative to the point t are fixed, you can write the derivative F'(x) as the limit of [F(t+dt)-F(t-dt)]/dt as dt goes to zero. However when doing a physics simulation by integrating the laws of physics over time numerically, from initial conditions, the future is unknown until it is calculated, so you must use the form [F(t)-F(t-dt)]/dt. Thus it seems to me the laws of physics which contain derivatives and hence involve time, implicitly do privilege the past over the future.

    What about the billiards table example, you are thinking? Okay, in one case a cue hits a cue ball and the balls collide and roll around the table until friction brings them to a stop. In the reverse, stopped balls suddenly begin to move with no applied force - laws of physics have been broken, if the past and future are considered to be interchangeable in this example.

    I am sure philosophers can see some deeper paradoxes which I don't, but time works fine as far as I can see.

  19. This question arises due to frequent discussion here regarding 'free will' and determinism.

    Perhaps I should have said time evolution. In any case, here is a quote from Quanta Magazine re block universe. I think they mean special rather than general relativity"

    "Einstein’s masterpiece, the general theory of relativity, and the Standard Model of particle physics. The laws that underlie these theories are time-symmetric — that is, the physics they describe is the same, regardless of whether the variable called “time” increases or decreases. Moreover, they say nothing at all about the point we call “now” — a special moment (or so it appears) for us, but seemingly undefined when we talk about the universe at large. The resulting timeless cosmos is sometimes called a “block universe” — a static block of space-time in which any flow of time, or passage through it, must presumably be a mental construct or other illusion."

    My original, perhaps naive, question is whether the physical reality of a 'block universe' can be or has been experimentally tested. And if it's not worth your time, kindly leave it lay. Thanks.

  20. JimV

    I did not see your post before posting. (funny, perhaps for some observers I would I have posted first?)
    There are some nifty diagrams of the block universe notion on the Web showing how the time ordering of events, say here on earth, would vary for different relativistically traveling observers. They are convincing. They also suggest the, to me unpalatable, notion that the future is somehow fixed and unchanging, the passage of time is an illusion.
    I would like to know if there is a way to test this result and whether it has actually been accomplished.

    Seems a physicist saying you have to look at the billiard ball dynamic at the microscopic level might counter your argument about time reversibility of physical events. If the myriad photons that convey the non-conservative force of friction were somehow reversed in their action, then the ball would indeed slowly start to move backward with increasing speed. Where one can draw the system bounds and how to actually accomplish this phenomenon I don't know. But, surely some weighty footprints mark the ground of its consideration.

  21. Um, I chose Antagonistic Pleiotropy. Seemed ideal for an emergent property that's not physics.


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