Book Review: This Explains Everything

Cover-This-Explains-EverythingThis Explains Everything: Deep, Beautiful, and Elegant Theories of How the World Works
John Brockman (Editor)
Harper Perennial, 2013
432 pages (Kindle edition)


I love discovering powerful theories that explode my perception of the world, and if you’re like me, This Explains Everything: Deep, Beautiful, and Elegant Theories of How the World Works is a book you should immediately put on your to-be-read list.

Imagine the opportunity to ask, and get answers for, your most pressing question from leading thinkers like Susan Blackmore, Richard Dawkins, Steven Pinker, Freeman Dyson, V. S. Ramachandran, Robert Sapolsky, Lawrence Krauss, Stewart Brand, Daniel Dennett, Carl Zimmer, Alan Alda, PZ Myers, and A.C. Grayling. did exactly this as part of their “annual question,” a project that solicits answers from brilliant individuals, inevitably yielding surprising insights. Last year’s question “What is your favorite deep, elegant, or beautiful explanation?” resulted in a volume that contains over a hundred short essays that engage topics from physics to economics to sexuality.

Responses to the Edge question are fascinating and brief. Psychologist Susan Blackmore, for example, finds her answer in evolution by natural selection.

Copy the survivors many times with slight variations and let them loose in this ever-shifting world, and only those suited to the new conditions will carry on. The world fills with creatures, ideas, institutions, languages, stories, software, and machines that have all been designed by the stress of this competition.

For biological anthropologist, Helen Fisher, the answer is epigenetics.

Fifty-year-old twins, for example, show three times more epigenetic modifications than do three-year-old twins; and twins reared apart show more epigenetic alterations than those who grow up together. Epigenetic investigations are proving that genes are not destiny; but neither is the environment— even in people.

Matt Ridley, science writer and founding chairman of International Centre for Life, is stunned by the fact that life is a digital code. “Never has a mystery seemed more baffling in the morning and an explanation more obvious in the afternoon,” he writes.

Wired editor-at-large, Kevin Kelly points to a solution that also became a viral video sermon for Neil deGrasse Tyson (see below); we are stardust.

This explanation says that most atoms in each of our bodies were built up out of smaller particles produced in the furnaces of long-gone stars. Only our primordial hydrogen bits were born before stars. In a cosmic accounting, we are 90 percent star remnants….And by a most elegant and remarkable transformation, our starstuff is capable of looking into the night sky to perceive other stars shining.

Neuroscientist and author, V.S. Ramachandran, explores that possible relationship of the claustrum to consciousness.

The claustrum may be central to consciousness— indeed, it may embody the idea of the Cartesian theater, taboo among philosophers— or at least be the conductor of the orchestra. It is this kind of childlike reasoning that often leads to great discoveries.

Martin J. Rees, former president of the Royal Society takes on “Snowflakes and the Multiverse.”

Our cosmic environment could be richly textured but on scales so vast that our purview is restricted to a tiny fragment. We’re not aware of the “big picture,” any more than a plankton whose universe was a liter of water would be aware of the world’s topography and biosphere.

If you want to stay on top of the newest ideas and feed your imagination, This Explains Everything is a good place to start. Essays are diverse, intriguing, and short, with most only a couple pages long and some as short as a sentence. Artist Katinka Matson’s answer was to point to Occam’s Razor. She wrote: “Keep it simple.” The essays included in this volume provide a wide-range of perspectives, from the potential death of monogamy to sexual-conflict theory. And in what single book might you find discussion of the Higgs mechanism or power of absurdity? For the curious person, This Explains Everything is a temptation you can’t afford to avoid.


In search of belief changing ideas