Scientists reveal favourite theories

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Charles DarwinOne hundred and ninety two scientists contributed more than 128,000 words in answer to The Edge’s question, “What is your favourite deep, elegant, or beautiful explanation?”

You have to admire that question. They didn’t ask, “What is your favourite theory?” or “What is your favourite scientific puzzle?” Neither did they confine it to any particular field. As noted in the Edge:

“Scientists’ greatest pleasure comes from theories that derive the solution to some deep puzzle from a small set of simple principles in a surprising way … answers may embrace scientific thinking in the broadest sense: as the most reliable way of gaining knowledge about anything, including other fields of inquiry such as philosophy, mathematics, economics, history, political theory, literary theory, or the human spirit. The only requirement is that some simple and non-obvious idea explain some diverse and complicated set of phenomena.

A breathtakingly clever question. And the responses are as luminous as they are eclectic. It is a testament to the wide, and eyes-wide-open, vision of science.

As the National Post noted in its story, Darwin’s explanation of evolution by natural selection, and Einstein’s explanation of time and space by general relativity, were the two most often mentioned. But the range of ideas presented is too rich to really limit it to just these two.

Many of the ideas suggested in the responses came to me as breathtakingly new and visionary. Some I had read about in books and magazines, although I don’t profess to truly understand them (string theory, for example). However, even as a layperson, I can appreciate why they highlighted Darwin’s realization of the mechanics of evolution (it basically created modern biological sciences) and Einstein’s realization (it created modern physics).

For me, Darwin’s explanation has always held a sort of charm. I suspect it’s because I first wrestled my way through his book around the precocious age of 12 or 13 (with intermissions to devour Tom Swift Jr and Andre Norton novels). It’s true that I understood little of it, and required the help of some other books borrowed from our local library to explain its broad scope in terms more appropriate for a pre-teen school kid. And it’s further true that my efforts to reread it since then have suffered from less attentiveness than I apparently had back then. But I still am in awe of its beauty and clarity and am slowly rereading it, in small bites.

As evolutionary biologist, Richard Dawkins, wrote about Darwin’s ideas in his submission, “Never in the field of human comprehension were so many facts explained by assuming so few.” But, fascinatingly, that was a mere sidebar to his submission. Dawkins chose to write not about Darwin, but about his great-grandson’s work in neurobiology. And at the end, he poses a challenge to genetic science. A delightful read – both Dawkins and all the responses.

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