The Big Think

September 16, 2008

Are We As Smart As We’re Ever Going to Be?

Filed under: Current Reading,Education,Politics,Science,Technology — jasony @ 10:01 pm

Three hundred years ago, Benjamin Franklin was born into a world where electromagnetism, nuclear physics, and even basic germ theory were completely unknown ideas. Anton van Leeuwenhoek had only done his seminal work on germ theory a generation before, and Isaac Newton’s Philosophae Naturalis Principia Mathematica was fresh off the presses. All kinds of new discoveries could be made by the layman simply because humanity existed in an intellectual universe where there were undiscovered wonders under every rock and behind every tree.

The period from Gallileo to Einstein was an era of great scientific discovery as humanity first started to make major inroads into the wilderness of knowledge, and while 400 years may seem like a long time, it’s the blink of an eye compared to the tens of thousands of years that homo sapiens sapiens has been roaming the planet.

So along comes the first few generations of people born into a world that has the technology to begin delving into the universe in a truly “scientific” way. Copernicus used simple observations to deduce that the sun was at the center of our local neighborhood. Discovery. Gallileo ground up some lenses and saw the moons of Jupiter. Discovery. Brahe (old metal-nose himself) and his assistant Johannes Kepler built on this work to deduce the laws of motion. Discovery. Newton rolled all of these observations up into some useful mathematical tools that really set things in motion (heh). Just as soon as Newton’s Mechanics and Calculus became widely known, the pace picked up and suddenly all kinds of discoveries were being made: under this stump was uncovered the orbits of the planets, behind this boulder was the first thermodynamics, the principles of pneumatics and hydraulics and then electromagnetism allowed the construction of more useful tools for experimenting. These in turn fed on themselves to create even more methods of discovery. Eventually Einstein wrote down his famous equation and seemed to upset the whole thing. But wait! Einstein was only describing a larger universe that encompassed all of Newton (who had encompassed all of Copernicus before him). Soon Heisenberg and Feynman, et. al. would encompass even Einstein’s landscape in a gigantic theory of tiny things- quantum mechanics.

At every one of these stages it became more and more important to know what had come before. You couldn’t be Gallileo and royally torque off the Church without understanding Copernicus. Brahe built on the work of Gallileo (and Copernicus). Kepler built on Brahe (who built on Gallileo and Copernicus). Today, people like Steven Wolfram build on Hawking, who build on Feynman, who built on Bohrs, who built on Einstein, who built on Newton, and so on down the line to the first guy to bang two shiny rocks together and notice a tiny silver spark. We’ve journeyed a long way, and at each step scientists had to know and understand what came before.

The wonderful result is this: if you pay attention in an average well-taught high school physics class, you can come out knowing more about the world than just about any of the Really Smart People before, say, 1900. You might not be as good with the math or as insightful about the processes involved, but you’ll have a clearer picture of how the universe is put together than the men and women who fought through the initial discoveries. A little more study in college and you, yes, even you, could have an intelligent discussion with Einstein. Study a bit more and you could even impress the old coot. Think about that. The tools to understand creation- tools that were centuries in development and cost generations of intellectual muscle-are handed, sharp, shiny, and clean…. to a sixteen year old. These students then take the intellectual discoveries of Copernicus-Gallileo-Newton-Brahe-Kepler-Einstein-Bohrs-Feynman-Heisenberg-Hawking and use them to create some truly big tools:


That’s ATLAS, the main detector at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider. It’s been called the single most complex object humanity has ever created. This 7000 ton, 80’x130′ monster is about half as big as Notre Dame cathedral. Pause for a moment and consider that.



In fact, the 17 mile diameter instrument is almost as big as Paris itself! (Faint red ring):


In many ways, CERN’s Large Hadron Collider and ATLAS represent the capstone of human achievement. You’re looking at the culmination of ten thousand years of technological development, folks, none of which would have been possible without knowing, and understanding, all of the discoveries that were painfully, laboriously unearthed over generations. ATLAS will be used to plumb the very bedrock of matter, and will hopefully give us some answers that are suspected, but not yet proven. Scientists hope the instrument will then open the doors to parts of the map where before there were only the ghostly outlines of dragons.

Four hundred years ago, if you wanted to discover something that had never been seen, the only tools needed were a ramp, a reasonably round object, and an accurate clock. Now, in order to make a new discovery, you need a tool that takes thousands of scientist, millions of man hours, billions of dollars, and the cooperation of dozens of nation-states. We’ve come a long way, baby.

So now what?

Let’s say you’re an aspiring scientist in high school who wants to work on the frontiers of discovery. You want to go where no one has been, dig in a place where the soil is undisturbed, and uncover something new. Write your own Principia Mathematica for the modern age. Here’s a pretty good map to the frontier:

• Spend the first five years of your life learning how to walk, talk, reason, and not soil yourself too often.

• The next twelve years of your life (in the American system of education, at least), are spent learning the basics. Language, arts, literature, and an exposure to introductory physics and math. Hopefully you’ll have some logic courses because they’ll be very useful later.

• Next, do your undergraduate studies. You’ll take some english and literature and maybe even a few courses in the arts, but the vast majority of your next four years will be spent learning to understand the scientific rules that govern how the universe works.

• Now, the work really starts. In grad school you start to focus a lot on the higher reaches of modern science. Advanced physics, higher math, relativity, the quantum universe.

• Your doctoral and post-doc time is spent specializing in one area and getting to know that area as well as humanly possible. Who made the big discoveries? Why are they important? Learn these esoteric theories completely and then incorporate them into your knowledge base. My friend Matt was kind enough to send along the following list of the courses required in order to get a fundamental grounding sufficient to make original contributions in String Theory (just one small subset of physics, though I imagine that there would be a lot of overlap if you saw a list of, say, particle physics or cosmology):

Here is a list of directed (graduate only) courses one needs to do string theory (I’m leaving off several topics that may not be be necessary, though they would be helpful)

Classical Mechanics
Classical Electromagnetism
Statistical Mechanics
Mathematical Physics
Non-Relativistic Quantum Mechanics
Relativistic Quantum Mechanics
Special Relativity
General Relativity
Quantum Field Theory
Gauge Field Theory
Particle Physics
Intro String/M-Theory
Conformal Field Theory
String Cosmology
(each would be 2-3 semesters if you actually took all of these classes… though most of us learn a lot of this by reading)

Complex Analysis
Linear Algebra
Ordinary Differential Equations
Partial Differential Equations
Abstract Algebra
Algebraic Topology
Differential Topology
Differential Geometry
Algebraic Geometry
Lie Group Theory

At the graduate level, the above mentioned math classes should cover the basic ideas of the following, but you’ll need a fairly advanced knowledge of the following (in no particular order);

Group Theory
Differential Forms
Rational Homotopy Theory
Tensor Theory
Differentiable Manifold (Real and Complex Manifolds)
Riemann Surfaces
Kahler Manifolds
Characteristic Classes
Fibre Bundle Theory
Noncommutative Geometry
Representation Theory
Calabi-Yau Manifold Theory
Enumerative Geometry
Loop Theory
Knot Theory
Topological Quantum Field Theory
Topological String Theory
Conformal Group Theory
Kac-Moody Theory
Quantum Group Theory
Information Theory

The first third of your life is over and you’re just now ready to begin. Congratulations!

As you advance in school, the amount you learn is utterly dwarfed by the amount that is known. It’s like doing search-and-rescue. You start from a single point of last-known-location and begin to spiral out. Each step from the center of the circle dramatically increases the total area of the circle. To be a modern scientist at the frontier requires that you have a good understanding of as much of the circle as possible, but there are still areas of the landscape that will be forever unknown to you, simply because the circle of knowledge is so big that nobody can know it. Thomas Young is generally regarded as the last man to know everything and while “everything” is a tall order, good old Tom was well-versed in just about every major field of knowledge during his time: 1773-1829. He had a grasp on the overall map of science and made significant contributions all over the place. As a result of his contributions, knowledge soon grew too vast for one person to get the big picture.

Matt, a trained scientist and string theorist, told me that he had been in school for his entire life (minus the first five years). That makes an ongoing twenty year education. He’s just now getting to the point where he knows enough about his chosen field to make a serious contribution. Matt tells me that he didn’t really start to get a picture of how things fit together until he was well into his doctoral studies. Four hundred years ago, you could learn everything there was to know about a subject in a few years, then spend the rest of your life expanding the borders. A hundred years ago it took a bit more time to get to this point, but there was still enough of your lifetime left to make new discoveries (and more important, enough mental agility- most mathematicians, for instance, do their best work before the age of thirty).

When Columbus, Magellan, and Marco Polo set off on their great journeys of exploration, the world was largely unknown. Most people were born, lived, and died within sight of the same church tower, and “far away” meant the neighboring country. A mere one hundred years ago mankind hadn’t yet set foot on the highest place on the map. Or the lowest. Or either pole, for that matter. In the time of my grandparents there remained significant portions of the planet that were unexplored. Today, a simple visit to google earth can reveal any corner of the globe that you want to see, down to an amazing level of detail. Granted, we still don’t have a truly detailed map of the ocean floor, but to any reasonable degree we have “discovered” the surface of our planet. Writer David Brin puts it this way:

“Jungles crash to make way for houses. The world sweats in every pore the breath and touch of humanity. There’s not a single place left where you can go and say to a new part of the universe- “Hello, we’ve never met. Let me introduce myself. I am Man.”
David Brin Earth, p. 272

And yet! Even though each corner of the map has been photographed and measured, cataloged and recorded, there is still an unending amount of work to be done to see how it all fits together. Once the great Age of Exploration of the earth was over, we had really only just begun to see the world. We’re still only just beginning.

However, within a generation or so, the amount of scientific knowledge that will have to be known will be so great, the distance to the edge of the metaphorical map so vast, that the very brightest among us will have to study for literally their entire lives before their education will incorporate what they need to know to be sure they’re not just duplicating past effort. What will science do in this kind of world? Will we constantly be rediscovering the same rock or tree but from different directions? It’s impossible for physicists to keep up with everything that’s going on in biology or math, to say nothing even of their own field, so it’s not uncommon for a scientist in each field to discover the same thing from different angles. Usually they figure things out when somebody points out the similarities, but often these overlaps will go undiscovered for years. In a very real way, we might be approaching the time when new scientific discoveries end, not because there’s nothing new to be discovered (as John Horgan argues in his book, The End of Science), but because, like outer space, the next frontier might simply be too hard to reach. Indeed, particle physicists tell us that we could go on building bigger and bigger ATLAS’s, attached to more titanic Colliders, and still never reach the true foundation of matter, but at some point it becomes impossible to do so (I read somewhere that in order to reach the energy necessary to see the smallest subatomic particle, you’d need to build a particle collider the diameter of the universe. That’s most likely not a bid that would make it past the various budgetary committees.).

Now that we’re facing the possibility that our “local map” might become unmanageably large, how is the scientific community addressing it? How are we making sure that our finite resources are not being focused on overlapping priorities? What should we as a species do to insure that we’re making the most efficient use of the people at the frontiers? I have a few suggestions.

Communicate across disciplines. First, let me suggest that it’s even more important that we get the disparate fields talking to one another. Not only will this keep them from wasting resources by avoiding overlapping discoveries, but combining experts in many different fields can often spur new thinking that leads to new discoveries. The annual TED conference has been doing this sort of thing for over a decade, and has wisely started posting its famous (and famously expensive-to-attend) conferences for free on the internet. Get them direct from the website, or in podcast/vidcast format via iTunes. Some of the talks can be of a more artistic nature, and some are even silly (wonderfully so, sometimes), but there are plenty of examples of experts reporting back from their slice of the frontier.

Open up education. MIT’s Open Courseware project makes it possible to get an advanced education in many different fields. An MIT education, to boot. We need to encourage every university to do this, not only because it’s the right thing to do (and arguments about intellectual property and marketplace competitiveness are unconvincing- it hasn’t hurt MIT at all), but because it seems like a good way to raise the general level of education- the rising tide that floats all boats. Getting the “free” MIT education does come with some drawbacks, namely the inability to interact directly with the professor or students, but come on… it’s a free MIT education!

Leverage the internet: While still in its infancy, the internet is the single greatest tool for improving the human condition since soap. Google, with its amazing search technology and plans to scan every book in the library of congress, Microsoft’s Live Search, the Internet Archive, and Project Gutenberg, are all examples of technologies that leverage the capability of the internet to collate, organize, and search-enable knowledge. We need to broaden and deepen this technology to include every word in every language ever written, every picture and movie, every sound recording, and then develop ways to reliably translate between them all so that nothing that is discovered is forgotten and everything ever learned is as accessible as a simple search.

Develop better systems of analyzing what we already know: In his book The Age of Spiritual Machines, Ray Kurzweil argues that future artificial intelligence will spend its time collating and analyzing the discoveries that have been made, not making new ones. We need to begin this process by making access to discovery as open, free, and unencumbered as possible. If basic research (sometimes even basic research that has been paid for by public money) is locked up by very expensive subscription services, the pace of discovery and innovation will slow down and only be accessible to those with deep pockets. The technology mentioned above is the basic beginning. Next we need to figure out ways to start comparing what we know so that those of us not on the frontiers (the vast majority), can more effectively analyze what has already been discovered. Just finding a lost tree or valley is great but exploiting this new knowledge is where humanity is benefitted.

Revamp the broken copyright system: Cory Doctorow and Lawrence Lessig have been tireless warriors in the battle against the completely broken copyright mess, but they need help. We need to completely overhaul the system and come up with laws that balance the right of the creators/copyright holders (not always the same entity) with the good of society. There are many creative suggestions that would address this balance, but so far money and political influence have stood in the way of real change. Why is this important? Can you imagine how hard it would have been to make real progress hundreds of years ago if every idea and discovery was locked down to a fare-thee-well with restrictive copyright? True, you can’t copyright a natural fact or discovery, but it only takes one creative lawyer to confuse “natural fact” with “method of doing business”. Once this happens it tends to scare off innovators who maybe don’t have the resources to fight the system. Case in point: your own genome might soon become the property of a drug company. Other companies will then have to pay to use the “natural fact” of a specific sequence of your ATTGATTACA’s in order to develop new medical treatments.

“An old tradition and a new technology have converged to make possible an unprecedented public good. The old tradition is the willingness of scientists and scholars to publish the fruits of their research in scholarly journals without payment, for the sake of inquiry and knowledge. The new technology is the internet. The public good they make possible is the world-wide electronic distribution of the peer-reviewed journal literature and completely free and unrestricted access to it by all scientists, scholars, teachers, students, and other curious minds. Removing access barriers to this literature will accelerate research, enrich education, share the learning of the rich with the poor and the poor with the rich, make this literature as useful as it can be, and lay the foundation for uniting humanity in a common intellectual conversation and quest for knowledge.” (From the Budapest Open Access Initiative Web site at

Capitalism is great, and I’m all for it, but I believe there’s a balance between the right of a guy to make a buck and the right of society to build upon past discovery.

Fix the educational system. This is a whole post by itself, and there have been intellectual wars fought over how to do this, but one thing is very clear: our educational system worldwide stinks. In some countries (America among them), you are highly unusual if you possess a high school diploma and college degree. MIT’s idea is a start, but we need to take education more seriously than just the latest demand by the entrenched teacher’s unions or political special interests. I spent five years getting an education degree and what this showed me was that there is a lot of work to be done in improving the system. To that end we need to develop ways to…

Optimize our brains: A recent Wired article interviewed Piotr Wozniak about Supermemo. Supermemo is a computer program that uses the latest cognitive research in learning theory to optimize your memory. Used consistently, Supermemo can help you remember things better. Enter something that you want to remember (Mozart’s dates, the mass of the hydrogen atom, or new vocabulary words), and Supermemo will become your perfect teacher, reminding you of these facts at neurally-optimal intervals. The program is still in its infancy and reportedly very user-unfriendly, but if we can develop ways to optimize how we learn then we can shorten the period of time it takes to get out to the frontier.

The human species is rapidly approaching a point where the quantity of knowledge is so great that we lose our ability to usefully learn anything new. When that happens, humanity may stagnate. It seems clear that we must soon take steps to change our current systems of learning and intellectual exchange so that we can continue to push our frontiers out a little farther.

1 Comment »

  1. Really nice thoughts, Jason. Of course, one thing these calculations leave out is that technology can provide us with what might be called a Knowledge Pensieve: we can fold more and more information into less and less brainspace more effectively. Don’t know how that will affect things.

    Meanwhile, I look forward to creating a computer program that can be proud of me.

    Comment by barrybrake — September 18, 2008 @ 11:53 am

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