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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

WHAT IS YOUR FAVORITE DEEP, ELEGANT, OR BEAUTIFUL EXPLANATION?

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:

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TAGGED: EARTH SCIENCES


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