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The wisdom of knowing what to ask

Here’s a question for you:

“What is information and where does it ultimately originate?”

And another:

“Is the universe a great mechanism, a great computation, a great symmetry, a great accident or a great thought?”

The first question was posed by the physicist and writer Paul Davies, the second by John Barrow, a cosmologist, theoretical physicist and mathematician. Both were posted online nearly two decades ago at Edge.org, then a fledgling website created by John Brockman, an author and literary agent for science writers.

Writing back then about Edge and its World Question Center, I concluded: “If a few of those questions don’t get the wheels in the brain spinning, sending some thoughts flying out of the box, nothing will.”

Not long ago I returned to Edge after a few years’ absence and was happy to find it alive and well. The site’s mission remains unchanged: “To arrive at the edge of the world’s knowledge, seek out the most complex and sophisticated minds, put them in a room together, and have them ask each other the questions they are asking themselves.”

One of the site’s top recurring features is the Annual Question. Over the years, scientists and thinkers in a range of disciplines have responded to queries such as these: “What is the most important invention of the last 2,000 years?” (1999); “What questions have disappeared?” (2001); “What do you believe is true even though you cannot prove it?” (2005); “What should we be worried about?” (2013); and “What do you think about machines that think?” (2015).

The question for 2016—“What do you consider the most interesting recent (scientific) news? What makes it important?”—already has drawn nearly 200 responses from contributors ranging from 2004 Nobel Prize-winning physicist Frank Wilczek to musician Peter Gabriel.

Among the others posting thoughts on this year’s question is Lisa Randall, a theoretical physicist at Harvard University and author of several books. As it happens, I just started reading her latest book, “Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs: The Astounding Interconnectedness of the Universe.” Among the last year’s news she cites are the discovery of a new species of human and more accurate data of species loss that could mean the Earth is on a path toward a sixth extinction. But Randall adds that some of the most important new knowledge likely is not yet apparent. Revolutionary discoveries are the result of many years’ work and “the headlines of any given year are not necessarily representative of what is most significant.”

OK, you might be wondering how these esoteric musings are relevant to you or me. And in fact, if you want solutions to key problems, Edge probably isn’t the place to look. Its pursuit is not answers but questions—in particular, which are the most important ones to be asking.

Randall in her book notes that much of what we know about the 13.8 billion-year-old universe has been discovered only in the last century. Take dark matter, so named because it doesn’t interact with light; it accounts for roughly 85 percent of the matter in the universe—a fact not known until the last several decades.

I’d wager that this breakthrough and others like it originated with scientists asking questions that at the time sounded offbeat or even ridiculous. But discoveries happen only when someone, asking why not, scales the walls of conventional wisdom.

Unlike science, politics these days is awash in certitude. Candidates who admit to any uncertainty or who don’t know all the answers stand little chance of getting elected. Hubris also ruled in the run-up to the financial crisis; we all know how badly that ended.

It’s not wrong to want elected officials who can get things done; those who are paralyzed by indecision ought to find another line of work. But curiosity, imagination and a strong desire to truly understand the nature of things—along with a good measure of humility—are traits that should be rewarded, not belittled.

What will it take for that to happen? Good question.

1/29/2016 (c) 2016 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email rbj@rbj.net.

One comment

  1. The two questions are intimately connected. All knowledge (information, measurables and data), that is, all knowables in any shape or form, in the future, present and past, were created when the idea of universe was transformed into its physical form. We can only discover that which exists. That which exists cannot be totally annihilated. That which has not existed before cannot come into being. It’s only mutation.
    The universe exists in the rarest of fields, called Absolute Truth, from where all laws (physical, mental and spiritual) emanate. An equation of conformity to Absolute Truth exists. That’s what science is all about. When we comply with the condition of Absolute Truth we make a discovery of that which was hidden from us. That could be a law itself or the application of the law to yield a specific result.

    As an aside, the purpose of creation of the universe was to reveal and support Life, that is, consciousness and intelligence in a physical shell or membrane. Life lay unmanifested until conditions to form, sustain and evolve Life appeared on one planet, in one solar system, in one galaxy. There are many such instances in the universe.

    The complexity of Life matches the enormous physical size of the universe.

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