Elegant solutions, 192 of them

The Edge is a place where they seek:

To arrive at the edge of the world’s knowledge, seek out the most complex and sophisticated minds, put them in a room together, and have them ask each other the questions they are asking themselves.

They ask an annual question of the assembled clever people, this year’s being:


There are 192 varied responses, from which I have selected an elegantly random sample (follow the links below for the full piece, or above for all 192):

The Principle of Least Action

Nature is lazy. Scientific paradigms and “ultimate” visions of the universe come and go, but the idea of “least action” has remained remarkably unperturbed. From Newton’s classical mechanics to Einstein’s general relativity to Schrödinger’s quantum field theory, every major theory has been reformulated with this single principle, by Euler, Hilbert, and Feynman, respectively. The reliability of this framework suggests a form for whatever the next major paradigm shift may be. …

Boscovich’s Explanation Of Atomic Forces

A great example how a great deal of amazing insight can be gained from some very simple considerations is the explanation of atomic forces by the 18th century Jesuit polymath Roger Boscovich, who was born in Dubrovnik.

One of the great philosophical arguments at the time took place between the adherents of Descartes who—following Aristotle—thought that forces can only be the result of immediate contact and those who followed Newton and believed in his concept of force acting at a distance. Newton was the revolutionary here, but his opponents argued—with some justification—that “action at a distance” brought back into physics “occult” explanations that do not follow from the “clear and distinct” understanding that Descartes demanded. (In the following I am paraphrasing reference works.) Boscovich, a forceful advocate of the Newtonian point of view, turned the question around: Let’s understand exactly what happens during the interaction that we would call immediate contact? …

Redundancy Reduction and Pattern Recognition

Deep, elegant, beautiful? Part of what makes a theory elegant is its power to explain much while assuming little. Here, Darwin’s natural selection wins hands down. The ratio of the huge amount that it explains (everything about life: its complexity, diversity and illusion of crafted design) divided by the little that it needs to postulate (non-random survival of randomly varying genes through geological time) is gigantic. Never in the field of human comprehension were so many facts explained by assuming so few. Elegant then, and deep—its depths hidden from everybody until as late as the nineteenth century. On the other hand, for some tastes natural selection is too destructive, too wasteful, too cruel to count as beautiful. In any case, coming late to the party as ever, I can count on somebody else choosing Darwin. I’ll take his great grandson instead, and come back to Darwin at the end. …

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