"Funerals" in Science are Not More Important than in Humanities"

by Cliff Pickover

Click here to be taken to the Edge site for responses from Steven Pinker, Richard Dawkins, Sherry Turkle, Alan Alda, Daniel C. Dennett, Jared Diamond,W. Daniel Hillis, George Dyson, David Gelernter, and others.

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At the end of 2013, literary agent John Brockman asked his science writers the following. Science advances by discovering new things and developing new ideas. Few truly new ideas are developed without abandoning old ones first. In other words, science advances by a series of funerals. Why wait that long?


My response is below.

"Funerals" in Science are Not More Important than in Humanities

by Clifford A. Pickover, author of The Math Book, The Physics Book, and The Medical Book trilogy

The focus of this collection of essays may emphasize that we need to concentrate on scientific ideas, and their failures, to ensure that humanity’s toolkits are sufficiently robust to deal with impending challenges that include global epidemics, climate change, species extinction, technology acceleration, and increasing energy needs. The premise is that we may no longer have the luxury to wait for funerals of scientific ideas to achieve appropriate advancements.

To provide a slightly enlarged focus, we should remember that the life and death of ideas that have the greatest impact on our lives are just as likely to be in the humanities and social sciences as in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields. If humanity advances through scientific idea-funerals, it advances even more often through the same process occurring with social ideas that mutate, allowing us to find purpose in our lives and to react in a logical and compassionate way towards the challenges facing humanity. No one should believe that idea funerals in science are more important than idea funerals in the humanities for overcoming global problems.
Since the dawn of humanity, even the most brilliant brains rarely generated ideas likely to survive for centuries. Probably every idea that changed the world has mutated slightly or been superseded. Nonetheless, I urge readers to embrace and study these burial mounds of ideas—scientific, social, and religious. I refer to these kinds of death heaps as idea tumuli. Just as burial mounds of earth and/or stones (also referred to as barrows, tumuli, and kurgans) have been adopted by numerous cultures throughout time for their dead and have been carefully studied—idea tumuli need to be excavated to remind us why and how these dead ideas evolved, so that erroneous thinking that decreases our well-being can be avoided in the future. Similarly, while others essayists will focus on “scientific” ideas that should be moved aside so that science can advance, we should also remember that these idea tumuli need to be cherished, protected, recorded, and studied. Just as it is useful to understand the emergence of discarded ideas like alchemy, phlogiston theory, the geocentric universe, Aristotelian physics, spontaneous generation, phrenology, and the plum-pudding model of the atom, imagine the incredible effect of discarded ideas that revolved purely around race, religion, gender, and other factors that led to countless suffering, the systematic destruction of people, or even the abandoning of helpful scientific and medical treatments.
In England, barrows were employed starting from the Neolithic Period (c. 4000 BC) to the late pre-Christian era (c. 600 AD), and they might contain several members of a family or clan. Idea tumuli also might be grouped, for study, into families of ideas. The American Founding Father Thomas Jefferson wrote of his excavations of an Indian burial mound with thousands of skeletons in Virginia: “[The mound] was of spheroidical form, of about 40 feet diameter at the base.... I first dug superficially in several parts of it, and came to collections of human bones, at different depths… lying in the utmost confusion, some vertical, some oblique, some horizontal… to give the idea of bones emptied promiscuously from a bag or basket… without any attention to their order.” It is intriguing to imagine the periodic excavation of idea tumuli, in both the sciences and humanities. What will the idea tumuli contain a thousand years from now? How might the tumuli be arranged in hyperspace along dimensions of culture, socioeconomics, country of origin, and other dimensions? Will we find premature burials? From the top of the mounds, we will look down and see previous knowledge from a new perspective as new concepts emerge and metamorphose like moths from their cocoons.

You can see other responses at the Edge site.

For more information on Cliff Pickover books, with cover images, click here. Dr. Clifford A. Pickover is the author of nearly 50 books on topics ranging from science and mathematics to religion, art, and history. Pickover is a prolific inventor with over 100 patents. He received his Ph.D. from Yale University. His web site, Pickover.Com, has received millions of visits.

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