'This Explains Everything' Doesn't, But It Does Make You Think

by Daniel Rasmus

8 April 2013

Like anthologies of short stories or poetry that coalesce around a theme, the question of "deep, beautiful and elegant theories" forms the thread that wanders from interpretation to interpretation.
cover art

This Explains Everything: Deep, Beautiful, and Elegant Theories of How the World Works

John Brockman, editor

(Harper Perennial)
US: Jan 2013

In the age of the Internet, physical books may be more and more the result of content developed first for the Net, then adapted to physical form. This Explains Everything is such a book.

Each year, on the anniversary of the Edge.org‘s website, intellectual provocateur John Brockman poses a big, bold, open question to the Edge’s cadre of great minds. In 2012 he asked people to consider “deep, beautiful and elegant theories of how the world works.”

Like anthologies of short stories or poetry that coalesce around a theme, the question of deep, beautiful and elegant theories forms the thread that wanders from interpretation to interpretation. Interesting, the booked titled, This Explains Everything, doesn’t actually explain anything. The blog-length entries act as miniature dissertations that range over concepts as diverse as natural selection and quantum mechanics, as disconnected as Gaia and The Collingridge Dilemma.

The only way to evaluate such a book requires an examination of the following three criteria:

  • The Ideas
  • Depth of Thought
  • The Medium

At the highest level, This Explains Everything presents an uneven, though intellectually challenging tome that suffers from the literary equivalent of attention deficit disorder.

The Ideas

No one can argue that This Explains Everything suffers from a lack of ideas. The list of topics above does not even scratch the surface of the book’s subject matter, which could easily take up the length of this review should I enumerate each idea. Suffice it to say that if an idea of lasting influence, such as natural selection, or a new idea, such as the relationship between finger length and the levels of testosterone or estrogen in a human fetus, exists, then one of the book’s many authors probably mentions it.

This Explains Everything does not offer much in the way of political, economic or social ideas, which should suggest to Brockman a broadening of his scholarly posse — or perhaps it suggests that theories related to society or politics or economics fail to be deep, beautiful or elegant.

Depth of Thought

The reader who picks up This Explains Everything with the hope that it will explain everything will find their experience wanting. Although some of the commenters mention “the theory of everything” (most notably Anderi Linde in his essay “Why Is Our World Comprehensible?” even that theory only proposes to describe our physical world, not the rules that govern our moral, spiritual, or political realities. None of the essays could be considered tutorials or even defenses of the topics they discuss because the authors seem to be writing self-consciously for a general audience.

That said, many of the contributions provide depth even without length, because they drop prose breadcrumbs about predecessors and antecedents that allow the reader to pursue the references at their leisure. There is clearly no sense of any self-containment in This Explains Everything. For the reader to feel as though they understand anything, they will probably chase sources and read additional material to really understand the ideas in the book. Some writers, like Stanford’s Robert Sapolsky, spend time discounting other ideas before settling on their chosen subject. The books makes it clear that what is deep, elegant and beautiful to one, is not universally so.

The Medium

The right medium for this type of exploration remains that of the book’s origin: the Internet. Words or concepts mentioned in passing by the book’s authors demonstrate an innate familiarity with those words or concepts. The words and concepts are so familiar that they forget others may not know what they mean. For a general reader, or a specialist in one discipline, the Internet offers the ability to cross-reference and discover additional information easily through links or search. Writing self-consciously doesn’t not mean that everything is understandable, just that the level of language is aimed at the general, non-technical reader — the concepts themselves still require knowledge to be comprehensible.

That said, the Internet is not yet all pervasive, so This Explains Everything offers a kind of portable version of today’s questions and answers much as did Viking’s Portable Library series. And unlike an electronic book, one can flip pages and insert a finger to just see what serendipitously reveals itself.

Just because This Explains Everything has pages that follow one another, readers should not assume, nor should they attempt, to read it from cover-to-cover. The better experience comes in a periodic sampling of a topic to infuse one’s subconscious processing so it can offer perspective. Take an idea, and as you troll through tweets, timelines and blog posts, pay attention to your data feed, and the world around you, and see if anything in your experience reflects, requires or contradicts the deep and elegant idea you internalized. And then, as only good books can do, go back and sample it for the next intriguing thought.

Explaining This Explains Everything

For those seeking to become familiar with the majority of ideas that underlie today’s scientific debates, This Explains Everything offers an introduction of sorts. The book can be looked at in two ways: as either a grab bag of intellectual tidbits, or as a worthy mess. Perhaps those are not so far from each other. The brilliance of asking an open ended question to reveal what such a question invokes in a star-filled universe of cerebral talent does not preclude further analysis to help bring order to the chaos such a question generates. Indeed, many of the writers discuss the emergence of order from chaos as a deep and elegant idea.

As an editor, however, Brockman seems satisfied with leaving his contributors to disorder or to some order neither documented nor fathomable by this reviewer. The book would benefit from categorization of the responses, perhaps even a culling of redundancy, or a search for points of debate within similarities to expand and increase the value of the cleverly short assays of thought. Organization would also create places where Brockman and his contributors could offer further reading suggestions in context.

Despite this, as a seeker of new ideas, I found the book rich in mental fodder—and I found it was me, rather than Brockman, who necessarily, undertook an organizing of ideas. Perhaps that is to some degree the point of the book’s messiness: to allow each reader to find his or her own order. However, I don’t think that general categories would deter the curious reader from such a task—it would more likely encourage them to augment the order.

Those who naturally flit from idea-to-idea, constantly hunting for novelty and insight may not need a book like This Explains Everything, though it may act as a serviceable field guide. For those who don’t possess such a natural propensity, This Explains Everything becomes an indispensable way to sample thinking from many corners of the intellectual spectrum. In a world so often spent focusing on doing more with less during the day, and then seeking relief in the exploits of the Kardashians or the crew of Duck Dynasty, This Explains Everything can provide at least brief moments of challenging to renew curiosity about the world around us.

This Explains Everything: Deep, Beautiful, and Elegant Theories of How the World Works


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