This site is not maintained. Click here for the new website of Richard Dawkins.

A Hot Young Earth: My Answer to the Annual Edge Question

Each year, literary agent and science salonista John Brockman poses a question about science and gets a slew of answers from scientists, writers, and other folks. This year’s question is


Brockman got 187 responses, totaling some 126,700 words. A book, you say! Well, if this year is like previous ones, this year’s answers will indeed become a book. But in the meantime, you can browse the answers for yourself, perhaps plucking out those of your favorite people. (Fellow Discover blogger cosmologist Sean Carroll chooses Einstein’s explanation of gravity, for example.)

I found this year’s question particularly thought-provoking. Why is it that we call an equation or a theory “beautiful”? They don’t have pretty hazel eyes. They aren’t desert landscapes. I’m not sure of the answer. Scientific explanations seem to be beautiful if they give sense to confusing complexity in a very short space. Or maybe we just like the feeling we get when we consider how our puny human brains can interpret the universe.

For a lot of physicists, the beauty of an equation seems to be a good hint that it’s probably true. But I’m always a bit suspicious of beauty as a guide to the natural world. A number of contributors selected Darwin’s theory of evolution as their favorite explanation, and there’s no doubt that’s both beautiful and true. But there have been some wonderfully beautiful accounts of the natural world that have proven awesomely wrong. I was reminded of this fact while working on a new version of my evolution textbook (this one’s for biology majors). I was re-researching how scientists first came to appreciate the vast age of our planet, and realized it was a bit more complicated than I had previously appreciated. So that’s what I chose as my answer, which I’m reprinting here in full:

Read more



Draining of world's aquifers feeds...

Damian Carrington - The Observer 3 Comments

"In the long run, I would still be more concerned about the impact of climate change, but this work shows that even if we stabilise the climate, we might still get sea level rise due to how we use water."

'Ring of fire' eclipse to begin

- - BBC News - Science & Environment 6 Comments

An "annular eclipse" will be visible from a 240 to 300km-wide swathe of Earth stretching from Asia across the Pacific to the western US on Monday.

Arctic melt releasing ancient methane

Richard Black - BBC News - Science &... 6 Comments

Scientists have identified thousands of sites in the Arctic where methane that has been stored for many millennia is bubbling into the atmosphere.

How much water is there on, in, and...

- - USGS Water Science for Schools 27 Comments

'Save the planet', science leaders urge...

Pallab Ghosh - BBC News - Science &... 35 Comments

No Love for Comet Wipeout

Sid Perkins - Science - 8 Comments

Did a comet wipe out woolly mammoths and an ancient Indian culture almost 13,000 years ago? Geologists have fiercely debated the topic since 2007. Now a new study says an extraterrestrial impact wasn't to blame, though the scientists who originally proposed the impact idea still aren't convinced.



The Mystery of the Missing Chromosome

Carl Zimmer - Discover Magazine Blogs Comments

There’s something fascinating about our chromosomes. We have 23 pairs. Chimpanzees and gorillas, our closest living relatives, have 24. If you come to these facts cold, you might think this represented an existential crisis for evolutionary biologists.

Free iPad app: Evolution - Making Sense...

Carl Zimmer - iTunes Comments

Science writer Carl Zimmer and evolutionary biologist Douglas Emlen have teamed up to write a textbook intended for biology majors - free app available for the iPad

We Are Viral From the Beginning

Carl Zimmer - Discover Magazine Blogs 13 Comments

The human genome contains about 100,000 fragments of endogenous retroviruses, making up about eight percent of all our DNA

Tree of Life Project Aims for Every...

Carl Zimmer - The New York Times 19 Comments

The first goal of the project, known as the Open Tree of Life, is to publish a draft by August 2013. For their raw material, the scientists will grab tens of thousands of evolutionary trees that are archived online. They will then graft the smaller trees into a single big one.

Human Nature’s Pathologist

Carl Zimmer - New York Times 36 Comments

The Language Fossils Buried in Every...

Carl Zimmer - Discover Magazine 8 Comments

A British family with a bizarre speech deficit 
has led linguists to FOXP2: a gene that begins to 
explain how our ancestors acquired language.



Comment RSS Feed

Please sign in or register to comment