I’ve Got a Theory
There are scientists, and then there are scientists. You have probably met a few regular scientists in your life, maybe a professor or two, maybe the guy down the street who flies extremely expensive RC airplanes. But in the pantheon (or is it parthenon? No, it’s pantheon) of science, there are average everyday run-of-the-mill PhD’s, and then there are the Mad Geniuses. Most scientists, even the ones who win Nobel prizes and get things named after them (usually a “coefficient”), work within an extremely narrow niche and for the most part confine themselves to that niche. An occasional few can express themselves well enough to appear in T.V. interviews and write popular science books. But only a rare few attempt the kind of grand theorizing that you’d expect a scientist should do, the kind of all-encompassing broad theories-of-everything that most fictional scientists (usually of the “mad” variety) spend their days doing, when not assisting precocious teenagers.
These rare few scientists are at the peak of their game, quite probably some of the smartest people on earth. They attempt to form far-reaching theories that branch out across many disciplines, often including physics, math, philosophy, biology, and more — sometimes, the theory qualifies as a true “Theory Of Everything”, literally an attempt to account for the meaning and origin of life. To describe their research, they often must look beyond publishing papers in the usual scientific journals, instead to publish entire books describing their research. This kind of grand theorizing is much more rare among mainstream scientists than you might guess. It is, however, extremely common out beyond the fringes of science, where anyone with some math training, plenty of free time, a pot of coffee and a website can post their theory of everything — for a tour of these interesting theories, see the related article “I’ve Got a Theory and I’m Crazy.”
Just to give you an example — Roger Penrose, an extremely well-respected scientist known for important contributions to the foundations of physics, has developed a theory to explain human consciousness (one of the last great unsolved problems in biology) as a manifestation of quantum mechanics (probably the most popular mysterious aspect of physics). It’s an audacious claim, generally not accepted by the scientific establishment in either physics or biology, but he has used the force of his reputation to push the idea to the forefront of popular science. Almost no other scientist would even dare to put forth such a bold theory, for fear of loss of tenure and reputation.
As noted by one of my college physics professors, these grand theories-of-everything often combine the great unsolved or mysterious problems of several domains — if consciousness (the great unsolved problem of biology) and quantum mechanics (the go-to topic for mystery in physics) are so inscrutable and poorly understood, they must have something to do with each other, right? If they don’t touch upon one of these great mysteries, they can be counted on to incorporate a well-understood but controversial foundational theory, such as evolution. In fact the same topics appear so often in these grand theories that we’ve distilled all grand theories down to a combination of these Seven Cool Topics Of Science. Below we give a quick summary of each of the seven, but please be a sport and click on the link to learn more from our Wonderdorks profiles.
The granddaddy of all “cool” physics theories — cooler than relativity, much cooler than Newton’s Laws (particularly all that inclined-plane stuff), and way way way cooler than the theory of how transistors work. If physics theories were in high school, QM would be the quarterback of the football team. When I was just a young KinderDork, I was fascinated by this aspect of physics, and it is indeed fascinating, to judge from the amount of new-age pseudoscience that spirals around QM. After taking two years worth of classes, the romance quickly faded.
II. Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem
Oh yes, a theorem by itself made the list. Holds the same cool cache in mathematics that quantum mechanics holds in physics, probably because it did much the same to traditional formal proof theory that QM did to classical mechanics. Kurt Godel’s work injected the same flavor of uncertainty and fluidity to rigid mathematics as quantum uncertainty added to our view of the physical world, and so opened up a rich vein of nuggets for miners of the Grand Theory of Everything.1
III. Human Consciousness
Someday, someone’s going to figure out how the human brain works, and the wiring diagram will make Microsoft Windows look like tetherball. Until then, this is probably the most attractive topic for Grand Theorizers to theorize about. A surprising number of these theories use Cool Topics number 1 and 2, to explain Topic number 3.
IV. The Theory of Computation — Alan Turing and all that tape
I’ve got a Turing machine in my garage, next to the frictionless pulleys. I bring them out when I get the friends together for a Grand Canonical Ensemble. How you actually go about getting a computer to solve problems, namely by designing algorithms, turns out to be full of sticky philosophical issues, sticky enough to trap unsuspecting theorists.
V. “Emergent Complexity” — cellular automata, chaos, chaoplexity, etc.
A broad category, by which I mean any theory made of really simple little parts, from which amazingly complex things “emerge”. Sometimes, you get your complexity for nothing, and your chicks for free.
One of the few foundational theories that doesn’t require mind-bending mathematics to understand, and so this is a moose-head on the wall of several of the great theorists.
VII. The Wildcard
There’s more to life than Evolving Complex Algorithms that are Conscious but Incomplete, Probably. Most of these folks bring their own quirky ideas to the table. Be it
I’m ashamed to say I struggled to come up with an 8th cool topic, because “Eight Cool Topics of Science” could be abbreviated as “ECTOS” which sounds really cool. As we stand now, “SCTOS” sounds like something from an Afro Celts’ album. Which I can live with.
In this diatribe, we present a Grand Theory of Grand Theorizers — we’ll profile the most fascinating of these meta-scientists, attempt but fail to summarize their work accurately, and show how they’ve incorporated the Seven Cool Topics Of Science into their theories. And finally, we’ll let them go head to head in a Grand Royale of Scientific Theorists, to see who is The Greatest Grand Theorizer Of Them All. And after that, we’ll stop Capitalizing Words For Effect. We Promise.
The Baddest of the Bad
A world-reknowned physicist, one of the very few who can play ball with Stephen Hawking and not get a fastball to the face. As we mentioned above, he’s put forth a grand theory to explain the brain, based on quantum mechanics. And its all explained in his big fat giant book, The Emperor’s New Mind. Which we do a poor job of explaining in our profile.
Are you now or have you ever been a college student taking calculus? In the past ten years? Then you’ve probably used the computer program Mathematica. Meet the massive brain behind this phenomenal program, who has recently returned from a decade away from mainstream science to put forth a new physical theory in a book even bigger than Roger Penrose’s. We haven’t read it, as we believe our Wolfram profile would only be worsened by proper research.
A leader in the new field of quantum computation — the best path towards faster email downloading speeds yet proposed. Of all the theorists, his efforts probably are the broadest, connecting quantum physics, computation, aspects of scientific philosophy, and evolution.
If any of these scientists actually read these profiles, Douglas Hofstadter is probably the one most likely to “get it”, and also the least likely to sue me. His grand theories (which focus on explaining consciousness) are put forth in, what else, a gigantic big fat book, called Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid. Probably the best, most entertaining writer among these guys, which will make our profile seem even worse.
Either most of the Grand Theorizers happen to spring forth from a physics background, or I need to get out of the physics section at the bookstore more. Edward Wilson is the only Grand Theorizer in our profile who lives over in the Social Sciences section. While his Grand Theory is technically speaking less far-ranging than the others, in focusing only on human behavior, in my opinion he’s tackling a much harder problem. Quantum physics? Yeah, great, but explain to me what consistent theory could account for the Quacker Factory?
A newcomer to the realm of Bold Grand Theorizing, as bold as the rest despite his relatively lower profile (just a professor of microbiology, not quite in the Nobel ranks yet). What he lacks in resume material he more than makes up for in number of names contained in his first name.
The Junior Varsity
The Wonderdork Team does all the math, runs all the numbers, and lets the Titans of Science battle it out together in the ring to see who is crowned
John Horgan — The author of the extremely addictive book “The End of Science”, which includes interviews with most of the crew listed above and many more of the great scientists and philosophers of our time.
1. This last sentence officially wins the prize for most tortured, lame, cheeze-filled metaphor on this whole god-blessit website.