Know This is a collection of short essays that answer the 2016 question from Edge, “What do you consider the most interesting recent (scientific) news? What makes it important.” The question is different every year. For 2017, the question is “What scientific term or concept out to be more widely known?” What makes the Edge annual questions so interesting is they are answered by leaders in many fields, mostly in science, but also artists, mathematicians, historians, software developers, musicians, and philosophers. Who is not answering? Anonymous blowhards and conspiracy theorists are mercifully absent.
So what do people consider the most interesting recent news? A lot of people are rightly concerned about rising sea levels, global warming, and other environmental issues. Around 4,400 people die from air pollution every single day in China. As the author wrote, “Every time I hear of some tragedy that makes headlines, such as a landslide in Shenzhen that killed 200 people, I think to myself, “Yes — and today 4,400 people died of air pollution and it didn’t make the news.” He also pointed out that China posts environmental data updates hourly. This struck me as particularly poignant with this week’s silencing of several federal agencies for unknown reasons, on the environment at least, China is now a more open and transparent country that the U.S.
There were a number who focused on the rejection of science while others mentioned the declining standards of scientific research publications. One of my favorite essays is “We Fear the Wrong Things,” something that drives me nuts. This is because of the availability heuristic, we fear what we remember, what’s available to our thoughts. So, because it is not news when someone dies of something ordinary but common, we don’t worry about it. Instead we worry about unlikely disasters that make the news precisely because they are unlikely. Which is why “we spend an estimated $500 million per U.S. terrorist death but only $10,000 per cancer death.”
There are answers that talk about math, physics, amazing new technology, psychology and health. The variety is as broad as the 198 respondents who participated last year.
I loved Know This and know I will read it again. It is one of those books that insist on being read more than once and read slowly. Doctor’s offices should have copies in their waiting rooms. People should think of it as a coffee table book for readers. The short essays are the perfect length for someone to read while you make a cup of tea or do the last minute assembly before dinner. It’s better to read just one or two or, at most, three answers at a time so you have a chance to synthesize them, to consider each answer distinctly from other answers. Just reading straight through will never do the book justice because it will all run together.
This book deserves the justice of being read so that each answer can be a separate, considered reading. Topics are so disparate and varied that they only work if you don’t try to absorb them all at once. I rate this book so highly because it both fascinating and important. These are things we should know, things that deserve our attention. I am glad Edge makes a point of trying to get us to do so.
Know This will be released on February 7, 2017. I was provided an advance e-galley by the publisher through Edelweiss.
- Know This at Harper Perennial, Harper Collins
- John Brockman’s The Edge (what many call the world’s smartest web site)
- Guardian article on John Brockman