For years, I was forced to endure life with my nose up against the glass of the Annual Edge Question. What are you optimistic about? Ooh! ooh! Call on me! I’m optimistic about someday being able to prove my pessimistic beliefs (like P≠NP). How is the Internet changing the way you think? Ooh, ooh! I know! Google and MathOverflow are saving me from having to think at all! So then why are they only asking Steven Pinker, Freeman Dyson, Richard Dawkins, David Deutsch, some random other people like that?
But all that has changed. This year, I was invited to participate in Edge for the first time. So, OK, here’s the question:
What do you consider the most interesting recent [scientific] news? What makes it important?
My response is here. I wasn’t in love with the question, because of what I saw as an inherent ambiguity in it: the news that’s most interesting to me, that I have a comparative advantage in talking about, and that people probably want to hear me talk about (e.g., progress in quantum computing), is not necessarily what I’d regard as the most important in any objective sense (e.g., climate change). So, I decided to write my answer precisely about my internal tension in what I should consider most interesting: should it be the recent progress by John Martinis and others toward building a quantum computer? Or should it be the melting glaciers, or something else that I’m confident will affect the future of the world? Or possibly the mainstream attention now being paid to the AI-risk movement? But if I really want to nerd out, then why not Babai’s graph isomorphism algorithm? Or if I actually want to be honest about what excited me, then why not the superquadratic separations between classical and quantum query complexities for a total Boolean function, by Ambainis et al. and my student Shalev Ben-David? On the other hand, how can I justify even caring about such things while the glaciers are melting?
So, yeah, my response tries to meditate on all those things. My original title was “How nerdy do you want it?,” but John Brockman of Edge had me change it to something blander (“How widely should we draw the circle?”), and made a bunch of other changes from my usual style. Initially I chafed at having an editor for what basically amounted to a blog post; on the other hand, I’m sure I would’ve gotten in trouble much less often on this blog had I had someone to filter my words for me.
Anyway, of course I wasn’t the only person to write about the climate crisis. Robert Trivers, Laurence Smith, and Milford Wolpoff all wrote about it as well (Trivers most chillingly and concisely), while Max Tegmark wrote about the mainstreaming of AI risk. John Naughton even wrote about Babai’s graph isomorphism breakthrough (though he seems unaware that the existing GI algorithms were already extremely fast in practice, and therefore makes misleading claims about the new algorithm’s practical applications). Unsurprisingly, no one else wrote about breakthroughs in quantum query complexity: you’ll need to go to my essay for that! A bit more surprisingly, no one besides me wrote about progress in quantum computing at all (if we don’t count the loophole-free Bell test).
Anyway, on reflection, 2015 actually was a pretty awesome year for science, no matter how nerdy you want it or how widely you draw the circle. Here are other advances that I easily could’ve written about but didn’t:
- PH has finally been proven infinite relative to a random oracle
- We finally understand why computing the edit distance between two strings takes nearly-quadratic time
- Terry Tao solved the Erdös Discrepancy Problem
- The loophole-free Bell test that I blogged about here (Anton Zeilinger and Hans Halvorson discussed this in their Edge answers)
- Recent progress on the emergence of spacetime from entanglement, and understanding the role of computational complexity in quantum gravity (Lenny Susskind, Amanda Gefter, and Donald Hoffman all discussed these things in their Edge answers)
I’ve now read all (more or less) of this year’s Edge responses. Even though some of the respondents pushed personal hobbyhorses like I’d feared, I was impressed by how easy it was to discern themes: advances that kept cropping up in one answer after another and that one might therefore guess are actually important (or at least, are currently perceived to be important).
Probably at the top of the list was a new gene-editing technique called CRISPR: Randolph Neese, Paul Dolan, Eric Topol, Mark Pagel, and Stuart Firestein among others all wrote about this, and about its implications for creating designer humans.
Also widely-discussed was the discovery that most psychology studies fail to replicate (I’d long assumed as much, but apparently this was big news in psychology!): Nicholas Humphrey, Stephen Kosslyn, Jonathan Schooler, Ellen Winner, Judith Rich Harris, and Philip Tetlock all wrote about that.
Then there was the Pluto flyby, which Juan Enriquez, Roger Highfield, and Nicholas Christakis all wrote about. (As Christakis, Master of Silliman College at Yale, was so recently a victim of a social-justice mob, I found it moving how he simply ignored those baying for his head and turned his attention heavenward in his Edge answer.)
Then there was progress in deep learning, including Google’s Deep Dream (those images of dogs in nebulae that filled your Facebook wall) and DeepMind (the program that taught itself how to play dozens of classic video games). Steve Omohundro, Andy Clark, Jamshed Bharucha, Kevin Kelly, David Dalrymple, and Alexander Wissner-Gross all wrote about different aspects of this story.
Unsurprisingly, a bunch of high-energy physicists wrote about high-energy physics at the LHC: how the Higgs boson was found (still news?), how nothing other than the Higgs boson was found (the biggest news?), but how there’s now the slightest hint of a new particle at 750 GeV. See Lee Smolin, Garrett Lisi, Sean Carroll, and Sarah Demers.
Finally, way out on the Pareto frontier of importance and disgustingness was the recently-discovered therapeutic value of transplanting one person’s poop into another person’s intestines, which Joichi Ito, Pamela Rosenkranz, and Alan Alda all wrote about (it also, predictably, featured in a recent South Park episode).
Without further ado, here are 27 other answers that struck me in one way or another:
- Steven Pinker on happy happy things are getting better (and we can measure it)
- Freeman Dyson on the Dragonfly astronomical observatory
- Jonathan Haidt on how prejudice against people of differing political opinions was discovered to have surpassed racial, gender, and religious prejudice
- S. Abbas Raza on Piketty’s r>g
- Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, thoughtful as usual, on the recent study that said it’s too simple to say female participation is lower in STEM fields—rather, female participation is lower in all and only those fields, STEM or non-STEM, whose participants believe (rightly or wrongly) that “genius” is required rather than just conscientious effort
- Bill Joy on recent advances on reducing CO2 emissions
- Paul Steinhardt on recent observations saying that, not only were the previous “B-modes from inflation” just galactic dust, but there are no real B-modes to within the current detection limits, and this poses a problem for inflation (I hadn’t heard about this last part)
- Aubrey de Grey on new antibiotics that are grown in the soil rather than in lab cultures
- John Tooby on the evolutionary rationale for germline engineering
- W. Tecumseh Fitch on the coming reality of the “Jurassic Park program” (bringing back extinct species through DNA splicing—though probably not dinosaurs, whose DNA is too degraded)
- Keith Devlin on the new prospect of using massive datasets (from MOOCs, for example) to actually figure out how students learn
- Richard Muller on how air pollution in China has become one of the world’s worst problems (imagine every child in Beijing being force-fed two packs of cigarettes per day)
- Ara Norenzayan on the demographic trends in religious belief
- James Croak on amazing advances in battery technology (which were news to me)
- Buddhini Samarasinghe on (among other things) the power of aspirin to possibly prevent cancer
- Todd Sacktor on a new treatment for Parkinson’s
- Charles Seife on the imminent availability of data about pretty much everything in our lives
- Susan Blackmore on “that dress” and what it revealed about the human visual system
- Brian Keating on experiments that should soon tell us the neutrinos’ masses (again, I hadn’t heard about these)
- Michael McCullough on something called “reproductive religiosity theory,” which posits that the central purpose of religions is to enforce social norms around mating and reproduction (for what it’s worth, I’d always regarded that as obvious; it’s even expounded in the last chapter of Quantum Computing Since Democritus)
- Greg Cochran on the origin of Europeans
- David Buss on the “mating crisis among educated women”
- Ed Regis on how high-fat diets are better (except, isn’t this the principle behind Atkins, and isn’t this pretty old news by now?)
- Melanie Swan on blockchain-based cryptography, such as Bitcoin (though it wasn’t entirely clear to me what point Swan was making about it)
- Paul Davies on LIGO getting ready to detect its first gravitational waves
- Samuel Arbesman on how weather prediction has gotten steadily better (rendering our culture’s jokes about the perpetually-wrong weatherman outdated, with hardly anyone noticing)
- Alison Gopnik on how the ubiquity of touchscreen devices like the iPad means that toddlers can now master computers, and this is something genuinely new under the sun (I can testify from personal experience that she’s onto something)
Then there were three answers for which the “progress” being celebrated, seemed to me to be progress racing faster into WrongVille:
- Frank Tipler on how one can conclude a priori that there must be a Big Crunch to our future (and hence, the arena for Tiplerian theology) in order to prevent the black hole information paradox from arising, all recent cosmological evidence to the contrary be damned.
- Ross Anderson on an exciting conference whose participants aim to replace quantum mechanics with local realistic theories. (Anderson, in particular, is totally wrong that you can get Bell inequality violation from “a combination of local action and global correlation,” unless the global correlation goes as far as a ‘t-Hooft-like superdeterministic conspiracy.)
- Gordon Kane on how the big news is that the LHC should soon see superparticles. (This would actually be fine except that Kane omits the crucial context, that he’s been predicting superparticles just around the corner again and again for the past twenty years and they’ve never shown up)
Finally, two responses by old friends that amused me. The science-fiction writer Rudy Rucker just became aware of the discovery of the dark energy back in 1998, and considers that to be exciting scientific news (yes, Rudy, so it was!). And Michael Vassar —the Kevin Bacon or Paul Erdös of the rationalist world, the guy who everyone‘s connected to somehow—writes something about a global breakdown of economic rationality, $20 bills on the sidewalk getting ignored, that I had trouble understanding (though the fault is probably mine).