[Paleopsych] Edge Annual Question 1999: What Is The Most Important Invention?
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Edge Annual Question 1999: What Is The Most Important Invention?
Philip W. Anderson
Richard Saul Wurman
Eric J. Hall
James P. O'Donnell
W. Daniel Hillis
Marc D. Hauser
John Henry Holland
John Allen Paulos
Lawrence M. Krauss
John R. Searle
Paul W. Ewald
John C. Dvorak
WHAT IS THE MOST IMPORTANT INVENTION IN THE PAST TWO THOUSAND YEARS?
A year ago I emailed the participants of The Third Culture Mail List
for help with a project which was published on EDGE as "The World
Question Center." I asked them: "what questions are you asking
The World Question Center was published on December 30th. On the same
day The New York Times ran an article "In an Online Salon, Scientists
Sit Back and Ponder" which featured a selection of the questions.
Other press coverage can be found in EDGE In The News.
The project was interesting, worthwhile....and fun.
This year, beginning on Thanksgiving Day, I polled the list on (a)
"What Is The Most Important Invention In The Past Two Thousand Years?"
... and (b) "Why?".
I am pleased to publish below* the more than one hundred responses in
order of receipt. I expect many more entries and, in the spirit of The
Reality Club, robust discussion and challenges among the contributors.
Happy New Year!!
p.s. I get the last word.
(*Please note that the length of this document is 41,000 words which
prints out to about 75 pages.)
January 7, 1999
Top-Level Think Tank Goes Public
John Brockman's invitation-only salon for scientific thinkers opens a
public forum on Feed.
By Steve Silberman
One of the Net's most prestigious, invitation-only free-trade zones
for the exchange of potent ideas is opening its doors. A little.
.....Starting Thursday, two or three selected dialogs a month at Edge
-- founded in 1996 by author and literary agent John Brockman -- will
be open for public reading and discussion in a special area on Feed.
January 7, 1999
Die Zeit (German Text)
Brainstorming In The Club Of Thinkers
(Partial, rough English Translation)
by Ulrich Schnabel und Urs Willmann
Could one inspire German scientists for such a brainstorming? Hardly.
In German it is already difficult to find a good translation for this
neural activity, leading to fantasy an fun. Brainstorming: "procedure
to find the best solution of a problem by collecting spontaneous
incidents (of the coworkers)", torments itself the Duden, the leading
German dictionary. You can imagine the result.
January 7, 1999|
What Changed the World? Suggestions for Top Inventions
by Lee Dye -- Special to ABCNEWS.COM
That question was presented on Thanksgiving Day to Nobel laureates and
other heavy thinkers by New York author and literary agent John
Brockman. Brockman, who presides over an eclectic gathering of
scientists and science buffs, started publishing the answers this week
on the group's Web site. More than 100 participants have taken the
bait so far, and their answers are as varied, and in some cases as
strange, as the participants themselves.....This is not a group that
accepts limitations gladly. Some fudged on the dates. Some eschewed
the notion of an invention as some sort of gadget, opting instead for
such things as the development of the scientific method, mathematics
or some religions.
January 5, 1998
The Mother of All Inventions
Richard Dawkins, Stewart Brand, Joseph Traub and others answer the
question: What was the most important invention of the past two
This special feature marks the first collaboration between FEED and
Edge, John Brockman's invitation-only Internet forum, where hundreds
of the world's leading scientists and thinkers share their thoughts on
issues ranging from the meaning of numbers to genetics to affirmative
action. Readers can visit the Edge site for even more nominations, and
an post their own suggestions in the Loop. -- The Editors
January 5, 1998
"What's the Mother of All Inventions"
By Scott Rosenberg
The list makes for an enjoyable read -- if you can get over the
participants' utter inability to remain within the question's
2000-year bounds. Suggesting that the most important invention of this
era is the spirit of rebellion against arbitrary rules.
January 4, 1998
World News Tonight -- ABC News
Comments by Peter Jennings
January 4, 1998
Newsweek Magazine -- Newsweek.com
"The Power of Big Ideas"
By Sharon Begley
Was the light bulb more important than the pill? An online gathering
of scientists nominates the most important inventions of the past
2,000 years. Some of their choices might surprise you.
Newsweek on Air -- Related Audio
Interview by David Alpern
January 4, 1999
The Wall Street Journal -- The Wall Street Journal Interactive
"The Nominees for Best Invention Of the Last Two Millennia Are . . ."
By David Bank
Staff Reporter ofThe Wall Street Journal
John Brockman is the premier literary agent of the digerati, so when
he asked 1,000 scientists and other techno-thinkers to suggest the
most important invention of the past 2,000 years, the responses
sounded a lot like proposals for yet another millennial book.
January 4, 1999
The Daily Telegraph
The Pill and the Birth of Invention:
From Hay and Mozart to the Internet and clocks, scientists nominatre
man's major achievements,
says Roger Highfield
Nobel laureate Prof. Philip Anderson, philosopher Daniel C. Dennett,
biologist Prof Richard Dawkins and Sir John Maddox are among the 100
or so contributors who have nominated inventions randing from tha
atomic bomb and board games to the Internet, Hindu-Arabic number
system and anaethesia.
January 4, 1999
" Welcome to 1999!"
by Dave Winer
Congratulations to John Brockman and the people at edge.org. This is
an incredible source of new thoughts. I highly recommend it to DaveNet
readers.....Sites like www.edge.org show what can be done when there's
moderation and thoughtfulness and a little bit of editing. We can
learn from each other. The world is not filled with bullshit. There
are interesting new ideas, and new perspectives on old ideas
WHAT IS THE MOST IMPORTANT INVENTION IN THE PAST TWO THOUSAND YEARS?
My choice for the most important invention? The contraceptive pill.
Why? Well, there are, of course, the well-rehearsed answers to that
question. The pill did indeed fertilize the sexual liberation of the
sixties, did stimulate feminism and the consequent erosion of
conventional family structure in Western society -- perhaps the most
significant modification in human behaviour since the invention of
shamanism. It did help to change our concept of the division of
labour, to foster the beginnings of an utterly different attitude to
the social role of women. But, arguably the important sequel of the
pill is the growing conception that our bodies are servants of our
minds, rather than vice versa. This relatively low-tech invention has
triggered a cultural and cognitive revolution in our self-perception.
It has contributed to our ability to accept organ transplantation, the
notion of machine intelligence, gene therapy and even, eventually,
germ-line genetic manipulation. It has shifted the quest of human
beings from controlling their physical environment to controlling
themselves -- their own bodies and hence their physical destinies.
COLIN BLAKEMORE is Waynflete Professor of Physiology, University of
Oxford; Director, Oxford Centre for Cognitive Neuroscience; President
of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, 1997-8; and
author of The Mind's Brain.
I don't need a page. The answer is clear: inventions are concepts, not
just technologies, so the most important are the concepts of
democracy, of social justice, and the belief in the possibility of
creating a society free from the oppressions of clas, race, and
STEVEN ROSE, neurobiologist, is Professor of Biology and Director,
Brain and Behaviour Research Group, The Open University; author
Lifelines; The Making Of Memory; Not In Our Genes; From Brains To
Consciousness (Ed.) . See EDGE: "THE TWO STEVES" Pinker vs. Rose - A
Debate (Part I) and (Part II)".
My nomination is the invention of the scientific method.
The Greeks believed we could understand the world rationally. But the
scientific method requires that we ask questions of nature by
experimentation. This has led to the science and technology that has
transformed the world.
JOSEPH TRAUB is Edwin Howard Armstrong Professor of Computer Science
at Columbia University and External Professor at the Santa Fe
Institute. He is the author of nine books, including the recently
published Complexity And Information. See EDGE: " The Unknown and The
Unknowable: A Talk With Joseph Traub".
I always liked Lynn White's story about how the stirrup revolutionized
warfare and made feudal society and culture possible. Or Lefebre des
Noettes' argument about how the invention of the rudder made extensive
sailing and the consequent expansion of Europe and its colonization of
the world possible. But it's sobering to realize that it took us over
one thousand years to realize the impact of these artifacts. So I am
not at all sure we have at this time a good grip on what the most
important inventions of the past millennia have been. Certainly the
contraceptive pill is a good candidate, and so is the scientific
method. I am also intrigued by the effects of such inventions as the
flag -- a symbol of belonging that millions will follow to ruin or
victory independently of biological connectedness; or the social
security card that signifies that we are not alone and our welfare is
a joint problem for the community; or the invention of civil rights
which however abused and misused is pointing us towards a notion of
universal human dignity that might yet eclipse in importance all the
technological marvels of the millennium.
MIHALY CSIKSZENTMIHALYI is professor of psychology and education at
the University of Chicago. He is the author of Flow: The Psychology of
Optimal Experience, The Evolving Self: A Psychology For the Third
Millennium, Creativity, and Finding Flow (A Master Minds Book).
In his work on the foundations of chemistry, it occurred to Antoine
Lavoisier (and also, I suppose to Joseph Priestly) that the smell of a
chemical was not necessarily a 'property' of that chemical, but a
property of some related chemical that had the form of a gas, which
therefore could reach the nose of the observer. Thus solid sulfur
itself has no smell, but its gaseous relatives, sulfur dioxide and
hydrogen sulfide have plenty of it. Perhaps this tiny insight was the
key to the transformation of chemistry from a formerly incoherent
field into the great science of the 19th and 20th centuries.
MARVIN MINSKY is a mathematician and computer scientist; Toshiba
Professor of Media Arts and Sciences at the Massachusetts Institute of
Technology; cofounder of MIT's Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. He
is the author of eight books, including The Society of Mind. See EDGE:
" Consciousness is a Big Suitcase: A Talk with Marvin Minsky "; The
Third Culture, Chapter 8.
Philip W. Anderson:
The question is impossible to answer with one thing; one could for
instance say with some justification "the germ theory of disease" but
then that goes back to the microscope -- otherwise no one would ever
have seen a germ -- and that to the lens, and eyeglasses may be as
important as germs, ft as germs, and so on. But I will give you my
entry; to the amazement of my colleagues who think of me as the
ultimate antireductionist, I will suggest a very reductionist idea:
the quantum theory, and I include emphatically quantum field theory.
The quantum theory forces a revision of our mode of thinking which is
far more profound than Newtonian mechanics or the Copernican
revolution or relativity. In a sense it absolutely forces us not to be
reductionist if we are to keep our sanity, since it tells us that we
are made up of anonymous identical quanta of various quantum fields,
so that only the whole has any identity or integrity. Yet it also
tells us that we really completely know the rules of the game which
all these particles and quanta are playing, so that if we are clever
enough we can understand everything about ourselves and our world.
Note that I said understand, not predict -- the latter is really in
principle impossible, for reasons which have little to do with the
famous Uncertainty Principle and a lot to do with exponential
explosions of computations.
I would agree with whoever said "the scientific method" if I thought
that was a single thing invented at some identifiable time, but I know
too much history and see too much difference between different
sociologies of fields.
Why has no one mentioned the printing press yet?
The other really profound discovery is the molecular basis of
evolution, for which probably Oswald Avery deserves more credit than
anyone. Evolution itself has, like the scientific method, much too
complicated a history to class as a single invention.
PHILIP W. ANDERSON is a Nobel laureate physicist at Princeton and one
of the leading theorists on superconductivity. He is the author of A
Career in Theoretical Physics, and Economy as a Complex Evolving
The most important invention of all time was the interrogative
sentence. i.e., the asking of questions.
However, the original request was for the most important invention of
the last 2,000 years, not of all time. To that I would say, space
Of course, it may be centuries before we know the full consequences of
REUBEN HERSH is professor emeritus at the University of matics,
Really? And (with Philip J. Davis)The Mathematical Experience, winner
of the National Book Award in 1983. See EDGE; "What Kind Of Thing Is A
Number? A Talk With Reuben Hersh".
Another good question! My perhaps eccentric but nonetheless heartfelt
nomination is Western classical music, as epitomized in the
compositions of Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, and above all Mozart. Music
is a free invention of the human spirit, less dependent upon physical
or physiological inventions than most other contrivances. Musical
compositions in the Western tradition represent an incredible cerebral
achievement, one that is not only appreciated but also imitated or
elaborated upon wherever it travels. Most inventions -- from nuclear
energy to antibiotics - can be used for good or ill. Classical music
has probably given more pleasure to more individuals, with less
negative fallout, than any other human artifact. Finally, while no one
can compose like Mozart and few can play like Heifetz or Casals,
anyone who works at it can perform in a credible way -- and, courtesy
of software, even those of us unable to play an instrument or create a
score can now add our own fragments to an ever expanding canon.
HOWARD GARDNER, is Professor of Education at Harvard University. His
numerous books include Leading Minds, Frames of Mind, Multiple
Intelligences, The Mind's New Science: A History of the Cognitive
Revolution, The Unschooled Mind, To Open Minds, Creating Minds, and
Extraordinary Minds (Master Minds Series). See EDGE: "Truth, Beauty,
and Goodness: Education for All Human Beings" A Talk With Howard
Daniel C. Dennett:
The battery, the first major portable energy packet in the last few
billion years. When simple prokaryotes acquired mitochondria several
billion years ago, these amazingly efficient portable energy devices
opened up Design Space to multicellular life of dazzling variety. Many
metazoa developed complex nervous systems, which gave the planet eyes
and ears for the first time, expanding the epistemic horizons of life
by many orders of magnitude. The modest battery (and its sophisticated
fuel cell descendants), by providing energy for autonomous,
free-ranging, unplugged artifacts of dazzling variety, is already
beginning to provide a similarly revolutionary cascade of
developments. Politically, the transistor radio and cell phone are
proving to be the most potent weapons against totalitarianism ever
invented, since they destroy all hope of centralized control of
information. By giving every individual autonomous prosthetic
extensions of their senses (think of how camcorders are
revolutionizing scientific data-gathering possibilities, for
instance), batteries enable fundamental improvements in the
epistemological architecture of our species. The explosion of science
and technology that may eventually permit us to colonize space (or
save our planet from a fatal collision) depends on our ability to
store and extract electrical power ubiquitously. Our batteries are
still no match for the mitochondrial ATP system -- a healthy person
with a backpack can climb over mountains for a week without refueling,
something no robot could come close to doing -- but they open up a new
and different cornucopia of competences.
DANIEL C. DENNETT, a philosopher, is Director of the Center for
Cognitive Studies, and Distinguished Arts and Sciences Professor at
Tufts University. He is author of Darwin's Dangerous Idea: Evolution
and the Meanings of Life, Consciousness Explained, Brainstorms, Kinds
of Minds (Science Masters Series), and coauthor with Douglas
Hofstadter of The Mind's I. See The Third Culture, Chapter 10.
This is a good question. My suggestion is not original. I don't
remember who gave me the idea, but it was probably Lynn White, with
Murray Gell-Mann as intermediary.
The most important invention of the last two thousand years was hay.
In the classical world of Greece and Rome and in all earlier times,
there was no hay. Civilization could exist only in warm climates where
horses could stay alive through the winter by grazing. Without grass
in winter you could not have horses, and without horses you could not
have urban civilization. Some time during the so-called dark ages,
some unknown genius invented hay, forests were turned into meadows,
hay was reaped and stored, and civilization moved north over the Alps.
So hay gave birth to Vienna and Paris and London and Berlin, and later
to Moscow and New York.
FREEMAN DYSON is Professor of Physics at the Institute for Advanced
Study in Princeton. His professional interests are in mathematics and
astronomy. Among his many books are Disturbing the Universe, From Eros
to Gaia, and Imagined Worlds.
Computers, not for current reasons but because they're essential to
prevent a collapse of civilization in the future. Computers may allow
us to understand the earth's fickle climate and how it is affected by
detours of the great ocean currents. These detours cause abrupt
coolings within a decade that last for centuries, sure to set off
massive warfare as the population downsizes to match the crop
failures. "Natural" though these worldwide coolings have been in the
past, with their forest fires and population crashes, they're not any
more inevitable than local floods -- if we learn enough about the
nonlinear mechanisms in order to stabilize climate. Computer
simulations are the key to a "preventative medicine" of climate, what
may allow human scientific ingenuity to keep civilization from
unraveling in another episode of cool, crash, and burn.
WILLIAM H. CALVIN is a theoretical neurophysiologist on the faculty of
the University of Washington School of Medicine who writes about the
brain and evolution; author of The River That Flows Uphill, The
Throwing Madonna, The Cerebral Symphony, Conversations with Neil's
Brain (with George A. Ojemann), The Cerebral Code, and How Brains
Think (Science Masters Series). See EDGE: " Competing for
Consciousness: A Talk with William Calvin".
I know it would probably be more helpful to add something new to the
list, but I found Joe Traub's nomination so compelling that I'd feel
dishonest doing anything but seconding it. It's hard to imagine how
different our lives would be today without the steady accrual of both
knowledge and technology that has accompanied the rigorous application
of the scientific method over a surprisingly small number of human
generations. While the notion of formulating well explicated, testable
conjectures and subjecting them to potential refutation through
controlled experimentation (and, where appropriate, statistical
analysis) is now second nature to those of us who work in the
sciences, it's easy to forget that we weren't born with an intuitive
understanding of this approach, and had we lived two thousand years
ago, we would never have been taught to use it. Although the apparatus
of formal logic would probably rate a close second in my book, I join
Joe in casting my vote for the scientific method.
DAVID E. SHAW is the chairman of D. E. Shaw & Co., a global investment
bank whose activities center on various aspects of the intersection
between technology and finance, and of Juno Online Services, the
world's second largest Internet access provider. He also serves as a
member of President Clinton's Committee of Advisors on Science and
Technology, and previously served on the faculty of the Computer
Science Department at Columbia University.
We are using it now. The internet. Of course the internet relies on
numerous other inventions (chips, networking, CRTs, telephones,
electricity etc). The reason why the internet isn't an obvious choice
at first glance (besides the fact that is so present in our lives we
can fail to notice it) is that its power has not yet begun to fully
manifest itself. We still have schools, offices, the post office,
telephone companies, places of entertainment, shopping malls and such,
but we won't for long. Information delivery methods affect every
aspect of how we live. If we don't have to walk to town to find out
what's going on, or to shop, or to learn, or to work, why will we go
to town? Schools (which have not been able to change) will completely
transform themselves when better course can be built on the internet
than could possibly be delivered in a university. Of course, we
haven't seen that yet, but when the best physicists in the world
combine to deliver a learn by doing simulation that allows students to
try things out and discuss what they have done with every important
(virtual) physicist who has something to say about what they have
done, the only thing universities will have to offer will be football.
Shopping malls aren't gone yet but they will be. Why go to a store to
buy music CDs any more? You can listen to samples of whatever you want
and click a button for delivery while seated at home. Any object that
needn't be felt and perused to be purchased will find no better
delivery method than the internet. Newspapers? Not dead yet, but they
will be. Pick an aspect of the way we live today and it will change
radically in the coming years because of the internet. Life (and human
interaction) in fifty years will be so different we will hardly
recognize the social structures that will evolve. I don't know if we
will be happier, but we will be better informed.
ROGER C. SCHANK, computer scientist and cognitive psychologist, is
director of The Institute for Learning Sciences at Northwestern
University, where he is John Evans Professor of Electrical Engineering
and Computer Science as well as Professor of Psychology and of
Education and Social Policy; author of The Creative Attitude: Learning
to Ask and Answer the Right Questions, Tell Me A Story, and Engines
for Education . See The Third Culture, Chapter 9.
There is an inherent bias in all such surveys, because everyone
strives to be original and surprising and so shuns the obvious but
probably more correct answers -- such as steel, or moveable type, or
antibiotics, to name but three obvious things that have utterly
transformed not only how people live but the way they experience life.
The only way I can think of being surprising is to violate John's
terms and go back 6,000 years. But if I will be permitted to do so, I
would argue that the single invention that has changed human life more
than any other is the horse -- by which I mean the domestication of
the horse as a mount. The horse was well on its way to extinction when
it was domesticated on the steppes of Ukraine 6,000 years ago, but
from the moment it entered the company of man the horse repopulated
Europe with a swiftness that announced the arrival of a new tempo of
life and cultural change. Trade over thousands of miles suddenly
sprang up, communication with a rapidity never before experienced
became routine, exploration of once forbidding zones became possible,
and warfare achieved a violence and degree of surprise that spurred
the establishment and growth of fortified permanent settlements, the
seeds of the great cities of Europe and Asia. For want of the horse,
civilization would have been lost.
STEPHEN BUDIANSKY, Correspondent for The Atlantic Monthly, is the
author of If a Lion Could Talk: Animal Intelligence and the Evolution
of Consciousness and The Nature of Horses: Exploring Equine Evolution,
Intelligence, and Behavior.
Richard Saul Wurman:
ELECTRICITY CONTAINS THE WORD CITY -- WHICH CERTAINLY IS OUR MOST
COMPLEX INVENTION & FROM THE DENSITY OF HUMAN INTERACTION ALL ELSE
RICHARD SAUL WURMAN is the chairman and creative director of the TED
conferences. He is also an architect, a cartographer, the creator of
the Access Travel Guide Series, and the author and designer of more
than sixty books, including Information Architects, Follow the Yellow
Brick Road and Information Anxiety.
The question does most of the answering: "What Is The Most Important
Invention In The Past Two Thousand Years?"
That lets out agriculture, writing, mathematics, and money. Too early.
"Most important" would suggest looking for inventions near the
beginning of the period, since they would have had the most time for
Where did that number "Two Thousand" come from? From the approaching
Year 2000, which is a Christian Era date -- now referred to as "Common
Era": 2000 CE. That's quite a clue.
The most important cultural -- hence all-embracing -- invention is a
religion. Only two major religions have been invented in the last two
millennia, Christianity and Islam. Try to imagine the last two
millennia, or the present, without them.
STEWART BRAND is founder of The Whole Earth Catalog, cofounder of The
Well, cofounder of Global Business Network, president of The Long Now
Foundation, and author of The Media Lab: Inventing the Future at MIT
and How Buildings Learn. See EDGE: "The Clock of the Long Now";
Digerati, Chapter 3.
The Universal Turing Machine. Because it is universal.
Not only as the theoretical archetype for digital computing as we
practice it today, but as a least common denominator -- translating
between sequence in time and pattern in space -- that lies at the
foundations of mathematics and suggests the possibilities of a
communications medium we have only just begun to explore.
Life and intelligence that achieves widespread distribution across the
cosmos (and over time) may be expected to assume a digital
representation, at least in some phases of the life cycle, to
facilitate electromagnetic transmission, cross-platform compatibility,
and long-term storage. This requires a local substrate. And we are
doing our best, thanks to the proliferation of our current
instantiation of the UTM (known as the PC) to help. When we establish
contact with such an intelligence, will we receive instructions for
building a machine to upload Jodie Foster? Probably not. The download
will proceed the other way. To paraphrase Marvin Minsky: "Instead of
sending a picture of a cat, there is one area in which they can send
the cat itself."
GEORGE DYSON is the leading authority in the field of Russian Aleut
kayaks, he has been a subject of the PBS television show Scientific
American Frontiers. He is the author of Baidarka, and Darwin Among The
Machines:The Evolution Of Global Intelligence. See EDGE: "Darwin Among
the Machines; or, The Origins of Artificial Life"; See EDGE: "CODE -
George Dyson & John Brockman: A Dialogue" .
(Well John, you did say most important invention, not the one we
should be most proud of). The invention (and detonation) of the atomic
bomb has changed the world more profoundly than any other human
development in the last 2000 years. In seconds, nearly 200,000 people
were dead or dying in Hiroshima, and consciousness was forever changed
on our planet. Although the arms race fueled our economy for a few
more decades, the bomb set into motion a 'warfare stalemate'. With the
ability to destroy our planet within the realm of possibility, we were
forced to examine our rules of war, and seek new means of engagement
to work out our differences. And although hundreds of wars are going
on at any time on our planet, there are checks and balances,
underscored by the horror of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Please note that if you were to have phrased the question to include
time prior to 2000 years ago, then I would have suggested that our
most powerful invention would be song.
MARNEY MORRIS, is president of Animatrix, which is publishing
Sprocketworks, a next generation learning program, early in 1999. She
teaches interaction design at Stanford.
My personal favourite is the place value notation system combined with
the use of a symbol 0 for Zero to denote a nonexistent number marks
the birth of modern mathematics. I think this is the greatest
invention but I am being a little jingoistic -- it was invented in
India in the 4th or 5th century BC , systematised by Aryabhatta in the
4th Century AD by the Indian Astronomer and then transmitted to the
west via the Arabs. And Maths of course is essential for all science.
V.S. RAMACHANDRAN, M.D., PH.D., is professor of neurosciences and
psychology and Director of the Brain Perception Laboratory at the
University of California in San Diego. He is author of Phantoms In The
Brain: Probing the Mysteries of the Human Mind (with Sandra
Some of your jump-start friends and colleagues seem to have ignored
your (arbitrary?) cutoff date, so I will too. I think you'd have to go
a long way to find a more important invention than the basket. Without
something to gather into, you cannot have a gathering society of any
complexity, no home and hearth, no division of labour, no humanity.
This is not an original insight. I ascribe it to Glyn Isaac, a
sorely-missed palaeoanthropologist. The basket ranks right up there
with hay, the stirrup, printing and what have you.
While we're about it, though, I'd like to take issue with Dan
Dennett's choice of the battery. Granted it has enabled all the things
he says it has (and I seriously considered nominating the Walkman -- a
bizarre idea, the tape recorder that doesn't record -- as the
invention with most impact on our lives) but at what cost? All extant
batteries (though not fuel cells) are inherently polluting and
wasteful. It takes something like six times more energy to make a
Zinc-alkaline battery as the battery can store. I can't help but think
that if a small portion of the effort that has gone into inventing
"better" batteries had gone into, say, solar panels, our world and
culture would be even more different.
Thanks for a stimulating time.
JEREMY CHERFAS, biologist and BBC Radio Four broadcaster, is author of
The Seed Savers Handbook.
Most important invention: CALCULUS
The world today would be very different if the Greeks and not
Newton/Leibniz had invented or "discovered" calculus. The world today
might have occurred a millennium or two earlier.
Calculus was the real fruit of the renaissance. It began by taking a
fresh look at infinity -- at the infinitely small rather than the
infinitely large. And it led in one stroke to two great advances: It
showed how to model change (the differential equation) and it showed
how to find the best or worst solution to a well-defined problem
(optimization). The first advance freed math from static descriptions
of the world to dynamic descriptions that allowed things to change or
evolve in time. This is literally where "rocket science" becomes a
science. The second advance had more practical payoff because it
showed how to minimize cost or maximize profit. Thomas Jefferson
claimed to have used the calculus this way to design a more efficient
plow. Someday we may use it to at least partially design our offspring
to minimize bad health effects or (God forbid) maximize good behavior.
Calculus lies at the heart of our modern world. Its equations led to
the prediction of black holes. We built the first computers to run
other calculus equations to predict where bombs would land. The recent
evolution of calculus itself to the random version called "stochastic
calculus" has led to how we price the mysterious financial
"derivatives" contracts that underlie the global economy. Calculus has
led us from seeing the world as what Democritus called mere "atoms and
void" to seeing the world as atoms that move in a void that moves.
BART KOSKO is professor of electrical engineering at the University of
Southern California; he is author of Fuzzy Thinking and Nanotime.
The most important invention in the past two thousand years is
Have you ever had surgery? If so, either a) part of your body was
temporarily "deadened" by "local" anesthesia, or b) you "went to
sleep" with general anesthesia. Can you imagine having surgery, or
needing surgery, or even possibly needing surgery without the prospect
of anesthesia? And beyond the agony-sparing factor is an extra added
feature -- understanding the mechanism of anesthesia is our best path
to understanding consciousness.
Anesthesia grew from humble beginnings. Inca shamans performing
trephinations (drilling holes in patients' skulls to let out evil
humors) chewed coca leaves and spat into the wound, effecting local
anesthesia. The systemic effects of cocaine were studied by Sigmund
Freud, but cocaine's use as a local anesthetic in surgery is credited
to Austrian ophthalmologist Karl Koller who in 1884 used liquid
cocaine to temporarily numb the eye. Since then dozens of local
anesthetic compounds have been developed and utilized in liquid
solution to temporarily block nerve conduction from peripheral nerves
and/or spinal cord. The local anesthetic molecules bind specifically
on sodium channel proteins in axonal membranes of neurons near the
injection site, with essentially no effects on the brain.
On the other hand general anesthetic molecules are gases which do act
on the brain in a remarkable fashion -- the phenomenon of
consciousness is erased completely while other brain activities
General anesthesia by inhalation developed in the 1840's, involving
two gases used previously as intoxicants. Soporific effects of diethyl
ether ("sweet vitriol") had been known since the 14th century, and
nitrous oxide ("laughing gas") was synthesized by Joseph Priestley in
1772. In 1842 Crawford Long, a Georgia physician with apparent
personal knowledge of "ether frolics" successfully administered
diethyl ether to James W. Venable for removal of a neck tumor. However
Long's success was not widely recognized, and it fell to dentist
Horace Wells to publicly demonstrate the use of inhaled nitrous oxide
for tooth extraction at the Massachusetts General Hospital in 1844.
Although Wells had apparently used the technique previously with
complete success, during the public demonstration the gas-containing
bag was removed too soon and the patient cried out in pain. Wells was
denounced as a fake, however two years later in 1846 another dentist
William T.G. Morton returned to the "Mass General" and successfully
used diethyl ether on patient William Abbott. Morton used the term
"letheon" for his then-secret gas, but was persuaded by Boston
physician/anatomist Oliver Wendell Holmes (father of the Supreme Court
Justice) to use the term anesthesia.
Although its use became increasingly popular, general anesthesia
remained an inexact art with frequent deaths due to overdose and
effects on breathing until after World War II. Hard lessons were
learned following the attack on Pearl Harbor -- anesthetic doses
easily tolerated by healthy patients had tragic consequences on those
in shock due to blood loss. Advent of the endotracheal tube (allowing
easy inhalation/exhalation and protection of the lungs from stomach
contents), anesthesia gas machines, safer anesthetic drugs and direct
monitoring of heart, lungs, kidneys and other organ systems have made
modern anesthesia extremely safe. However one mystery remains. Exactly
how do anesthetic gases work? The answer may well illuminate the grand
mystery of consciousness.
Inhaled anesthetic gas molecules travel through the lungs and blood to
the brain. Barely soluble in water/blood, anesthetics are highly
soluble in a particular lipid-like environment akin to olive oil. It
turns out the brain is loaded with such stuff, both in lipid membranes
and tiny water-free ("hydrophobic") lipid-like pockets within certain
brain proteins. To make a long story short, Nicholas Franks and
William Lieb at Imperial College in London showed in a series of
articles in the 1980's that anesthetics act primarily in these tiny
hydrophobic pockets in several types of brain proteins. The anesthetic
binding is extremely weak and the pockets are only 1 /50 of each
protein's volume, so it's unclear why such seemingly minimal
interactions should have significant effects. Franks and Lieb
suggested the mere presence of one anesthetic molecule per pocket per
protein prevents the protein from changing shape to do its job.
However subsequent evidence showed that certain other gas molecules
could occupy the same pockets and not cause anesthesia (and in fact
cause excitation or convulsions). Anesthetic molecules just "being
there" can't account for anesthesia. Some natural process critical to
consciousness and perturbed by anesthetics must be happening in the
pockets. What could that be?
Anesthetic gases dissolve in hydrophobic pockets by extremely weak
quantum mechanical forces known as London dispersion forces. The weak
binding accounts for easy reversibility - as the anesthetic gas flow
is turned off, concentrations drop in the breathing circuit and blood,
anesthetic molecules are gently sucked out of the pockets and the
patient wakes up. Weak but influential quantum London forces also
occur in the hydrophobic pockets in the absence of anesthetics and
govern normal protein movement and shape. A logical conclusion is that
anesthetics perturb normally occurring quantum effects in hydrophobic
pockets of brain proteins.
The quantum nature of the critical effects of anesthesia may be a
significant clue. Several current consciousness theories propose
systemic quantum states in the brain, and as consciousness has
historically been perceived as the contemporary vanguard of
information processing (J.B.'s "technology = new perception") the
advent of quantum computers will inevitably cast the mind as a quantum
process. The mechanism of anesthesia suggests such a comparison will
be more than mere metaphor.
STUART HAMEROFF, M.D. is Professor, Departments of Anesthesiology and
Psychology, University of Arizonan 1996. He is coeditor of Toward a
Science of Consciousness : The First Tucson Discussions and Debates
and Toward a Science of Consciousness II: The Second Tucson
Discussions and Debates.
After reading the various answers to the question, I'm going to sneak
through the door opened by Philip Anderson and nominate a discovery
instead of an invention. And it is the Copernican Theory. Generally it
was a counter-intuitive idea, and it ran opposite to the
interpretation of senses (not to mention the Church) I mean, one could
"see" the sun going across the sky. What could be more obvious than
that? A nice move. It took a lot of intellectual courage, and taught
us more than just what it said.
MICHAEL NESMITH is an artist, writer, and business man; former cast
member of "The Monkees".
As usual you are a font of important, stimulating ideas and have
gathered together an awesome collection of minds for your latest
survey. Here is my response.
In 105 AD, Ts'ai Lun reported the invention of paper to the Chinese
Emperor. Ts'ai Lun was an official to the Chinese Imperial court, and
I consider his early form of paper to be humanity's most important
invention and progenitor of the Internet. Although recent
archaeological evidence places the actual invention of papermaking 200
years earlier, Ts'ai Lun played an important role in developing a
material that revolutionized his country. From China, papermaking
moved to Korea and Japan. Chinese papermakers also spread their
handiwork into Central Asia and Persia, from which traders introduced
paper to India. This is why Ts'ai Lun is one of the most influential
people in history.
Today's Internet evolved from the tiny seed planted by Ts'ai Lun. Both
paper and the Internet break the barriers of time and distance, and
permit unprecedented growth and opportunity. In the next decade,
communities formed by ideas will be as strong as those formed by
geography. The Internet will dissolve away nations as we know them
today. Humanity becomes a single hive mind, with a group intelligence,
as geography becomes putty in the hands of the Internet sculptor.
Chaos theory teaches us that even our smallest actions have amplified
effects. Now more than ever before this is apparent. Whenever I am
lonely at night, I look at a large map depicting 61,000 Internet
routers spread throughout the world. I imagine sending out a spark, an
idea, and a colleague from another country echoing that idea to his
colleges, over and over again, until the electronic chatter resembles
the chanting of monks. I agree with author Jane Roberts who once
wrote, "You are so part of the world that your slightest action
contributes to its reality. Your breath changes the atmosphere. Your
encounters with others alter the fabrics of their lives, and the lives
of those who come in contact with them."
CLIFFORD A. PICKOVER is a research staff member at the IBM T. J.
Watson Research Center. He is the author of over 20 books translated
in 10 languages on a broad range of topics in science and art. His
internet web site has attracted nearly 200,000 visitors.
My immediate response (without even thinking) was the contraceptive
pill. My mother had six children in five and a half years and it was
only the invention of the pill that saved our family from becoming a
mini-nation-state in its own right. But since Colin Blakemore has
already described so well its immense importance, let me suggest
another "invention" -- electrification.
Why electrification? For a start, one of my most vivid childhood
memories is of my mother seemingly spending endless hours washing
nappies and clothes by hand. The electric washing machine and other
electric home gadgets (vacuum cleaners, fridges, food processors et
cetera) have freed billions of women from the endless drudgery of
heavy-duty housework. By bringing us light and heat and power on tap,
electricity has truly transformed life -- not just in the home, but in
almost every industry. Modern manufacturing would be impossible
without electricity. Ditto the modern office. The ability to literally
transport power is, I think, the most revolutionary technology to come
out of modern science. And of course, it is the ability to transport
electric power at the micro level that has made possible silicon
chips, and the attendant computer and information revolution. Far more
than Einstein and Bohr, Faraday and Maxwell are the true "heroes" of
the modern technological world.
MARGARET WERTHEIM is a science writer, and a research associate of the
American Museum of Natural History. She is the author of Pythagoras
Trousers a history of physics and religion.
The telescope resolves light from very far away. The spectroscope
analyses and diagnoses it. It is through spectroscopy that we know
what the stars are made of. The spectroscope shows us that the
universe is expanding and the galaxies receding; that time had a
beginning, and when; that other stars are like the sun in having
planets where life might evolve.
In 1835, Auguste Comte, the French philosopher and founder of
sociology, said of the stars:
"We shall never be able to study, by any method, their chemical
composition or their mineralogical structure . . . Our positive
knowledge of stars is necessarily limited to their geometric and
Even as he wrote, the Fraunhofer lines had been discovered: those
exquisitely fine barcodes precisely positioned across the spectrum;
those telltale fingerprints of the elements. The spectroscopic
barcodes enable us to do a chemical analysis of a distant star when,
paradoxically (because it is so much closer), we cannot do the same
for the moon -- its light is all reflected sunlight and its barcodes
those of the sun. The Hubble red shift, majestic signature of the
expanding universe and the hot birth of time, is calibrated by the
same Fraunhofer barcodes. Rhythmic recedings and approachings by
stars, which betray the presence of planets, are detected by the
spectroscope as oscillating red and blue shifts. The spectroscopic
discovery that other stars have planets makes it much more likely that
there is life elsewhere in the universe.
For me, the spectroscope has a poetic significance. Romantic poets saw
the rainbow as a symbol of pure beauty, which could only be spoiled by
scientific understanding. This thought famously prompted Keats in 1817
to toast "Newton's health and confusion to mathematics", and in 1820
inspired his well known lines:
"Philosophy will clip an Angel's wings,
Conquer all mysteries by rule and line,
Empty the haunted air, and gnomed mine --
Unweave a rainbow . . ."
Humanity's eyes have now been widened to see that the rainbow of
visible light is only an infinitesimal slice of the full
electromagnetic spectrum. Spectroscopy is unweaving the rainbow on a
grand scale. If Keats had known what Newton's unweaving would lead to
-- the expansion of our human vision, inspired by the expanding
universe -- he could not have drunk that toast.
RICHARD DAWKINS is an evolutionary biologist and the Charles Simonyi
Professor For The Understanding Of Science at Oxford University;
Fellow of New College; author of The Selfish Gene, The Extended
Phenotype, The Blind Watchmaker, River out of Eden (Science Masters
Series), Climbing Mount Improbable, and the recently published
Unweaving the Rainbow. See EDGE: "Science, Delusion, and the Appetite
for Wonder: A Talk by Richard Dawkins"; The Third Culture: Chapter 3.
My suggestion for the most important invention of the last two
millennia is the computer because of the way it extends the capacities
of the human mind for accurately performing large numbers of
calculations and for keeping track of and accessing vast bodies of
data. As with any great invention, these enhanced abilities have a
light and a dark side. As a scientist I am now able to answer
questions that could not be answered prior to the computer. On the
dark side is the loss of privacy and the enhanced potential for social
control made possible by the ability to manipulate large databases of
As another candidate, my mother has said that her all time favorite
invention is the telephone because of how it allows her to stay in
intimate and immediate contact with distant friends.
DAVID HAIG is an evolutionary biologist and a member of the Department
of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology, Harvard University.
Christopher G. Langton:
Like others who have responded, I think the choice is obvious. The
remarkable thing is that "the obvious choice" is different for
everyone! To my mind, the most important inventions are those which
have forced the largest changes in our world-view. On the basis of
this criterion, I pick two (for reasons listed below): The telescope,
and the theory of evolution by natural selection.
I pick two because it seems to me that there are two major categories
of important inventions: a) complexity increasing, and b) complexity
By complexity increasing, I mean those inventions that open up vast
new realms of data, which can not be accounted for on the existing
world view, making the universe less understandable, and therefore
seemingly more complex.
By complexity decreasing, I mean those inventions that identify a
pattern or algorithm in vast realms of data, ridding that data of a
good deal of its apparent complication. These inventions force
alterations to our world view to account for previously unaccountable
data, or to account for it more directly and simply, making the
universe more understandable, and therefore seemingly less complex.
The former tend to take the form of instruments or devices -- physical
constructs -- while the latter tend to take the form of concepts,
theories, or hypotheses -- mental constructs. Both qualify as
(*To be careful, the former also involves a mental construct -- a
device alone is useless without the mental construct that points it in
the right direction.)
In the former category, nothing rivals the telescope.
No other device has initiated such a massive reconstruction of our
world view. It forced us to accept the Earth, and ourselves, as
"merely" a part of a larger cosmos. Of course, numerous theories
besides the earth-centered universe existed before its invention, but
the telescope opened the doors to the flood of data that would resolve
what were previously largely philosophical disputes. The microscope
-- a relative of the telescope -- also opened the door to a previously
unimagined universe, and runs a close second to the telescope on the
world-view shaking Richter scale.
In the latter category, there are many brilliant candidates, but I
think that Darwin's invention of the theory of evolution by natural
selection outshines them all. It is perhaps the only truly general
theory in Biology, a field much more complex than physics. If we
discover life elsewhere in the universe it is likely to be the only
biological theory that will carry over from our terrestrial biology.
Darwin's theory reduced tremendously the complication of zoological
data. Critically, as with the telescope, it has put tremendous
pressure on the previous world-view to accommodate man as "merely" a
part of a much larger nature. This pressure is still largely being
resisted, but the outcome is clear.
A close second would be the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Although the
Second Law has not, perhaps, posed such a profound challenge to our
collective world view, it has tremendously reduced the complexity of a
great body of data (and it profoundly affects the world view of anyone
who studies it in detail!)
I would have nominated the computer, but I think that, although it has
profoundly affected our daily routines, it has not yet profoundly
affected our world view. The computer is a kind of mathematical
telescope, revealing to us a vast new realm of data about what kinds
of dynamics follow from what sorts of rules -- we are constantly
discovering new galaxies of mathematical reality with computers.
However, it will be a while before these empirical discoveries force a
profound alteration of our world view.
CHRISTOPHER G. LANGTON a computer scientist, is internationally
recognized as the "founder" of the field of Artificial Life. He is
Chief Technology Officer at The Swarm Corporation, and editor of the
Artificial Life journal. See The Third Culture, Chapter 21.
Eric J. Hall:
Quite a good question and some very interesting responses. However, I
take a more pragmatic view. For me, the steam engine was the most
important invention in the past two thousand years. The steam engine
freed man and beast from physical labor. No other invention had so
many different and versatile uses. Man could cut down entire forests
to feed sawmills to build cities, quarry stone, propel trains and
ships to make the world a smaller place, power factories, and generate
electricity. Agrarian society was over and industrialism reigned. Most
importantly, the steam engine created more leisure time for mankind.
No longer was leisure a pastime for the idle rich. The pursuit of
leisure and the changes it created in society far outstripped the
first 18 centuries. Without the steam engine, our society would be
radically different from today.
ERIC J. HALL is President of The Archer Group, a consulting firm
specializing in emerging technology companies. He has helped found
companies including Yahoo!, Women.com, and The ImagiNation Network.
My vote for "The Most Important Invention In the Past Two Thousand
Years" is Gödel's Incompleteness Theorem. This single piece of
mathematical jujitsu, proving unprovability, formally ended the strain
of Western thought begun by Socrates and first fully fleshed out by
Aristotle. The ancillary effects of that theory -- a rejection of
master narrative, an understanding that we will never know all the
answers, an acceptance of contradiction, and an embrace of complexity
-- are just now making themselves felt in the dawn of the post
CLAY SHIRKEY is Professor, New Media Department of Film & Media,
Of course, "What is the single most important invention of the past
two thousand years?" is one of those questions that does not really
have an answer, like "What is the best novel/symphony/movie?
But if I had to make a choice, it would be the Hindu-Arabic number
system, which reached essentially its present form in the sixth
Without it, Galileo would have been unable to begin the
quantificational study of nature that we now call science. Today,
there is scarcely any aspect of life that does not depend on our
ability to handle numbers efficiently and accurately. True, we now use
computers to do much of our number crunching, but without the
Hindu-Arabic number system we would not have any computers.
Because of its linguistic structure, the Hindu-Arabic number system
allows humans who have an innate linguistic fluency but only a very
primitive number sense to use their ability with language in order to
handle numbers of virtually any useful magnitude with as much
precision as required.
In addition to its use in arithmetic and science, the Hindu-Arabic
number system is the only genuinely universal language on Earth, apart
perhaps for the Windows operating system, which has achieved the near
universal adoption of a conceptually and technologically poor product
by the sheer force of market dominance. (By contrast, the Hindu-Arabic
number system gained worldwide acceptance because it is far better
designed and much more efficient, for human usage, than any other
KEITH DEVLIN, a mathematician, is the author of Goodbye, Descartes :
The End of Logic and the Search for a New Cosmology of the Mind; Life
by the Numbers; and The Language of Mathematics: Making the Invisible
I would have to vote for philosophical skepticism as the most
important "invention" (if one thinks of invention as fabrication
rather than discovery, as it is more archaically meant) of the past
two thousand years. The notion that there is a "truth behind" things
and a "bottom" to the matter has instilled in all of us, whether
scientists, philosophers, theologians, or lay people, a maniacal
obsession with improving our explanatory capabilities. As such
skepticism can be seen as the driving force behind science and
technology, modern conceptions of faith, the soul, and the other. Of
course, one might argue that skepticism has been around for longer
than two thousand years; but its characterization as a fundamental
problem to be contended with before any constructive work can be done
seems to me a peculiarly modern invention, a defining feature of our
intensively self-conscious, post-Cartesian world.
LUYEN CHOU is President and CEO of Learn Technologies Interactive in
New York City, an interactive media developer and publisher. See EDGE:
"Engineering Formalism and Artistry: The Yin and Yang of Multimedia: A
Talk With Luyen Chou".
Antonio R. Cabral, M.D.:
I propose that the most important invention in the past two thousand
years is: "Languages". If you take a look at the proposals you have
received (or will) so far: the contraceptive pill, the scientific
method (whatever that means), the quantum theory, and so on, they
could not have even been thought out, let alone conveyed, without the
aid of a language. I do not mean a language in particular, but all the
languages, dead or alive. Of course one tends to think that live
languages deserve the credit, but without the so-called "dead
languages", such as Latin, the live ones simply would not exist. If
one accepts that language is the most important invention in the past
2000 years, one has to concede that the "Human Brain" is the most
important inventor during the same period.
In my opinion, the printing press comes second to languages as the
most important invention in the past 20 centuries; this puts Johann
Gutenberg (c.1400-1468) as the second most important inventor of all,
since one can easily pinpoint him as the Father of the printed letter.
Without a (written) language, specially when it conveys concepts and
feelings, all cultures -- scientific, literary or otherwise -- would
be all but a conceptless matter. The Third Culture simply could not
One can speculate ad nauseam about which language in the current state
of world affairs, including the Internet, is the most important one of
all. I have some ideas, to theorize about them, though, is beyond your
ANTONIO R. CABRAL, M.D. Is Associate Professor of Medicinem National
Autonomous University of Mexico.
Philip Anderson asks the right question: "Why has no one mentioned the
printing press yet?"
I mean, doesn't it seem kind of obvious that printing -- under which
would be subsumed all forms of large-scale reproduction of the written
word, from handmade wooden type to the computer and word-processing
program I'm using to write this -- was the most important invention of
the past two thousand years? Printing led directly to mass literacy,
democracy, the scientific revolution, cyberthis and cyberthat, and all
those other good things.
A more general observation. I notice that most of the responses you
included in the email suggest that the most important invention of the
past two thousand years, whatever it was, just happens to have
happened in the past hundred years. Doesn't this reflect a bad case of
chronocentrism, i.e., the irrational belief that one is lucky enough
to be living in history's most important era? Given that people have
been inventing things all along, isn't it unlikely that all the most
important inventions would have happened in one little century out of
twenty? Wouldn't it be more logical to expect them to be spaced out
randomly over all twenty? Even if the twentieth is a particularly
inventive century, isn't it a little myopic to imagine that the one we
just happen to be living in is twenty times more inventive than any of
the others? Maybe four or five times more inventive, but even that
would be a stretch.
HENDRIK HERTZBERG, executive editor of The New Yorker since 1992, is
the author of the book One Million and, with Martin Kalb, of
Interesting question. My candidate would be: The concept of
information as a commodity, a thing that can be bought and sold. It's
an ancient invention, dating back to the day of the fleet footed
messenger, but its enormous consequences had to wait for the
acceleration of information-carrying technologies like the telegraph
and the Internet. We're only now witnessing the cumulative impact, as
the buying and selling of information begins to outweigh the buying
and selling of stuff.
Why is this so important? Because humans who trade in information
behave like our hunter gathering ancestors. They are alert and
adaptable to an ever-changing environment. They work in small groups.
They are independent thinkers who dislike taking orders and are
fervently egalitarian. They place their faith in face to face
relationships, not authority or a title. For as long as humanity got
its living by agriculture or industry, such traits had to be
suppressed in favor of those more amenable to centralization,
authority, large-scale enterprises. This epoch is coming to an end. In
the post-industrial west we no longer value stability, steadfastness
and predictability over change, adaptability and flexibility. We are
no longer awed by political power, instead seeing those who hold it as
just like us. (When I was a kid people worried about the ``Imperial
Presidency'' becoming too awesome for a democracy to support. But
then, when I was a kid, an ex-wrestler could not get elected governor
of Minnesota.) Corporate types often remark that their 20-something
employees can't take orders and expect to be able to dress as they
please and bring their parrot to work.
All this is supposed to be a consequence of prosperity. But it seems
to me the shift is far more profound. After a 7000-year detour through
agriculture and industry, we are returning to the ways of our proud,
individualistic, headstrong, small-group-dwelling forebears, and that
will reshape the human community profoundly. And it's the move from a
thing-economy to an information-economy that's making it happen.
DAVID BERREBY'S writing about science and culture has appeared in The
New York Times Magazine, The New Republic, Slate, The Sciences and
many other publications. He is currently at work on a book about the
psychology of Us versus Them.
In the spirit of completeness and risking chronocentrism big time, I
nominate Public Key Cryptosystems as something invented during the
last two thousand years and which will remain useful long after the
printing press will exist only in the (electronic) history books next
to the steam engine. PKC has three incredible properties: perfect
privacy, perfect authentication, and a reliable carrier of value and
contracts -- like gold used to be. All this in the digital environment
where information can be easily and perfectly stored and copied. At a
single stroke PKC transformed our vision of the asymptotic result of
information technology from the 1984-ish nightmare to a realistic and
ultimately attractive cyberspace where identity and privacy are not
lost, despite of our (and Orwell's) commonsense intuition to the
CHARLES SIMONYI, Chief Architect, Microsoft Corporation, focuses on
Intentional Programming, an ecology for abstractions which strives for
maximal reuse of components by separating high level intentions from
implementation detail. See EDGE: Intentional Programming: A Talk with
Charles Simonyi" and EDGE: " CODE II -- Farmer & Simonyi: A Reality
Building autonomous tools is my candidate for the most important
Artificial complex adaptive systems, from robots to any type of
autonomous agent, will change our world view in a qualitative way,
comparable to the change brought by the use of thing-like tools.
Tinkering with tools has shaped our view of the world and of
ourselves. For example, the invention of the pump enabled us to
understand the mechanical role of the heart. Science was born when
laboratory apparatus was used to select among mathematical theories of
the physical world which one correspond most closely to reality. But
all those tools have been lifeless and soulless things, and it is no
wonder that our scientific world view has tended to objectify
everything. Grasping the proper role of the subject pole of
experience, through the invention of subject-like tools, may provide
the key to a far wider world view.
With the invention of perspective, in the late Middle Ages, we shifted
our collective Western experience one-sidedly into the object pole,
leaving the subject pole out of the picture. We started looking at the
world from behind a window, and a couple centuries later, in science,
we attempted to take a God's eye view of the world. By now, we are
coming around full-circle, with our science and technology providing
us the means of exploration of the role of the subject.
We have only set the first steps towards building artificial subjects.
Just as our current artificial objects are vastly more complex than
the first wheel or bow and arrow, our artificial subjects will grow
more complex, powerful, and interesting over the centuries. But
already we can see a glimmer of what lies ahead: our first attempts to
build autonomous agents has taught us new concepts. As a result, we
are now beginning to explore self-organizing ecological, economic, or
social systems; areas of study where thing-like metaphors hopelessly
PIET HUT is professor of astrophysics at the Institute for Advanced
Study, in Princeton. He is involved in the project of building GRAPEs,
the world's fastest special-purpose computers, at Tokyo University.
Birth control (or if you need it to be more specific, the pill)
Why? Because freedom from constant childbearing means that women can
become meme-spreaders like men -- working for their memes rather than
their genes. This then means a change in the kinds of memes that
propagate effectively, including all the memes of other inventions as
well as the meme-spreading media, myths, science and the arts. In
other words, it is important because it changes the whole of culture.
Few single inventions have this effect on the whole meme pool.
SUSAN BLACKMORE, Senior Lecturer in Psychology at the University of
the West of England, Bristol, columnist for the Independent, and
author of Dying To Live: Near-Death Experiences, and In Search of the
James J. O'Donnell:
If you read through this growing list, you will see that people tend
to discover that the most important invention in the last 2000 years
is something they just happen to know a lot about. Well, I know a lot
about some important inventions -- like the codex book (and the
consequent idea that a book can be a manual for living -- that leads
us to the 19th century and its dead ends) and like the computer (which
gives us a model for ignoring the manual and just living by
experiment), but I think it is quite undeniable that there is
something far more important going on: effectual health care. Not just
antibiotics, not just birth control, not just anesthesia (to say
things mentioned here), but the underlying fundamental fact that we
have learned to cross the scientific method with care for human beings
and save lives. A thought experiment I like to have people play is
this: review your own life and imagine what it would have been like
without late 20th century health care. Would you still be alive today?
An astonishingly large number of people get serious looks on their
faces and admit they wouldn't: I wouldn't, that's for sure. It's
medical techniques, it's antibiotics, but it's also vitamin pills and
-- in some ways most wondrously cost-effective of all -- soap, as in
the soap doctors use to wash their hands.
JAMES J. O'DONNELL, Professor of Classical Studies and Vice Provost
for Information Systems and Computing at the University of
Pennsylvania, is the author of Avatars of the Word: From Papyrus to
The most important invention has been reading-glasses. They have
effectively doubled the active life of everyone who reads or does fine
work -- and prevented the world being ruled by people under forty.
NICHOLAS HUMPHREY is a theoretical psychologist; professor at the New
School for Social Research, New York; author of Consciousness
Regained, The Inner Eye, A History of the Mind, and Leaps of Faith:
Science, Miracles, and the Search for Supernatural Consolation . See
The Third Culture, Chapter 11.
Joe Traub already nabbed the invention I would have chosen; empirical
method. So I'll stake out a different claim. For present purposes,
I'll claim that the most significant invention of the last 2000 years
was the human ego.
The ego I'm talking about is the self-concerned human that Harold
Bloom credits Shakespeare with having invented. It's the thing that
William Manchester finds definitively missing in the Medieval mind.
Jostein Gaarder, in his children's philosophy novel, Sophie's World,
blames St. Augustine for inventing it. It's what the fuss is about in
Nietzsche. It's what exists in existentialism.
In truth, I'm not entirely convinced that I don't find good evidence
of this creature in pre-Christian/Common-era texts. (Thomas Cahill
thinks it was a gift from the Jews.) But it does seem that the sense
of individual self, outfitted with moral responsibility, free will,
consciousness, and -- most importantly -- neurotic self-obsession, at
one time did not exist, and then did.
That same sense of self is now being challenged by AI-ish members of
the EDGE community. Perhaps it will disappear, just as it once
appeared. So it is reasonable to think of the ego as a natural
inhabitant of approximately the last 2000 years.
One could argue that the ego had to precede empirical method. The
shift from pure rationality to empiricism relied on an acknowledgement
of differing perspectives of observation (while pure rationality was
thought to be independent of personal perspective). So the self was
needed in order to have a starting point from which to pose theories
and to make measurements in order to test them. Only an ego can have
imperfect enough knowledge to make mere guesses about what's going on
in the universe, and the hubris to test and improve those guesses.
I personally hope the ego survives the computer.
JARON LANIER, a computer scientist and musician, is a pioneer of
virtual reality, and founder and former CEO of VPL. He is currently
the lead scientist for the National Tele-Immersion Initiative. See
Digerati, Chapter 17.
Technological advances in communication from clay tablets, to
papyrus,to moveable type, to postscript have had a shaping influence
on society and these are accelerating. Almost overnight, the
accumulated knowledge of the world is crystallizing into a distributed
Images and music as well as text have merged into a universal currency
of information, the digital bit, which is my choice for the greatest
discovery of the last two millennia. Unlike other forms of archival
storage, bits are forever.
In the next millennium this digital archive will continue to expand,
in ways we cannot yet imagine, greatly enhancing what a single human
can accomplish in a lifetime, and what our culture can collectively
discover about the world and ourselves.
TERRENCE SEJNOWSKI, a pioneer in Computational Neurobiology, is
regarded by many as one of the world's most foremost theoretical brain
scientists. He is the director of the Computational Neurobiology Lab
at the Salk Institute and the coauthor of The Computational Brain.
I am surprised no one mentioned distillation, the great alchemical
invention of transformation in the search to understand the essence of
Alchemy appears to have started in Ancient Egypt (al-khem means the
art of Egypt in Arabic). Alchemy travelled with Islam as it spread
across Northern Africa and into mainland Europe with the Moorish
invasion of Andalucia in the tenth century.
Alchemy tries to make sense of the world by, among other things,
working with the elements to transform matter and attempt to strip
away the extraneous and capture its purest essence.
Some suggest Alchemy's founding father was the Egyptian god Thoth (in
Greek Hermes). Both are symbols of mystical knowledge, rebirth and
To find the first evidence of distillation of spirits, you have to go
to fourth century China, where the alchemist Ko Hung wrote about the
transformation of cinnabar in mercury as being: "like wine that has
been fermented once. It cannot be compared with the pure clear wine
that has been fermented nine time". Is he talking about distillation?
It seems possible. How do you ferment a wine nine times unless you
distill it? By that time, the Alexandrian Greeks had discovered that
by boiling you could transform one object into another. Pliny writes
about distillation being used to extract turpentine from resin, while
Aristotle recounts how sea water could be turned into drinking water
in 4 AD.
Aside from being the basis of modern science and industry, the
transformation of human beings brought on by the imbibing of distilled
spirits is of great interest to me.
RON COOPER, painter and sculptor who is known as "the King of
Downtown," was one of the original artists in the Los Angeles downtown
loft scene. More recently, he is founder and president of Del Maguey,
Single Village Mezcal (TM).
W. Daniel Hillis:
I agree that Science is the most important human development is the
last 2000 years, but it doesn't quite qualify as an invention. I
therefore propose the clock as the greatest invention, since it is an
instrument that enables Science in both a practice and temperament.
The clock is the embodiment of objectivity. It converted time from a
personal experience into a reality independent of perception. It gave
us a framework in which the laws of nature could be observed and
quantified. The mechanism of the clock gave us a metaphor for
self-governed operation of natural law. (The computer, with its
mechanistic playing out of predetermined rules, is the direct
descendant of the clock.) Once we were able to imagine the solar
system as a clockwork automaton, the generalization to other aspects
of nature was almost inevitable, and the process of Science began.
W. DANIEL HILLIS is a physicist and computer scientist; Vice president
of research and development at the Walt Disney Company and a Disney
Fellow; cofounder and chief scientist of Thinking Machines Corporation
where he built Connection Machines; co-chair of The Long Now
Foundation. He is author of The Connection Machine, The Pattern on the
Stone: The Simple Ideas That Make Computers Work (Science Masters
Series), as well as numerous articles.See The Third Culture, Chapter
23; Digerati, Chapter 11.
Here is my reply to your fiendish question:
How can we possibly pick the most important invention in the past two
thousand years? The real biggies -- language, fire, agriculture, art
-- came too soon. In the last two millennia our world has seen so many
inventions that it's hard to think of one that stands above all the
rest. The printing press? The computer? The A-bomb? After a bit of
this, one is tempted to give a smart-aleck reply and back it up with
the semblance of earnest reasoning: "Thousand Island dressing!"
But even this is boring. Somehow we have to break out of the box!
Well, if inventions are important, surely it's even more important to
invent the social structures that will guarantee a steady flow of new
inventions. I've heard it said that Edison was the first to turn
invention into a business. Every day he would walk into his lab and
say "Okay, what can we invent today?" But the groundwork was laid
earlier. Perhaps the invention of a patent office was the key step? Or
further back, Bacon's "New Atlantis", which envisioned the
techno-paradise we are now all so busy trying to build?
JOHN BAEZ is a mathematical physicist working on quantum gravity using
the techniques of "higher-dimensional algebra". A professor of
mathematics at the University of California, Riverside, he enjoys
answering physics questions on the usenet newsgroup
sci.physics.research, and also writes a regular column entitled "This
Week's Finds in Mathematical Physics".
Why hasn't anyone mentioned television??!! Is it too obvious? I think
it's the single most powerful and manipulative tool ever invented.
It's today's most important source of information and serves as a
tremendous behavior patterning device. Since it's inception, crime has
risen, sex has increased and the attendance at live performances has
VIVIANA GUZMAN is a flutist whose latest album is Planet Flute.
My first association for the most (whatever that means) important
invention was the unconscious mind, because, I thought to myself, the
concept offers some explanation -- and thus hopefully later remedies
-- for the behaviors coming from the darker sides of our nature.
Armed with better understanding of the origins of such behavior,
hopefully we could fashion ways out of the irrational clamp that
fundamentalist religion, blind nationalism or deep ideology often puts
on our conscious awareness. But, one thought later was that I believe
the unconscious does indeed exist, so logically it is a discovery, not
That (somewhat uneasily) suggests psychotherapy (again, whatever that
means given all its incarnations -- psychotherapy being but one of a
basket of techniques to make the unconscious more conscious) as my
invention. At least in principle -- and often in practice too I
believe -- it does offer us the opportunity to become more conscious,
therefore less inclined to absolute thinking and the subjugation
and/or violence absolutism often engenders in the minds of those who
don't harbor doubts.
In discussing the causes and possible solutions to global
environmental problems (e.g., global warming in particular), I note in
dialogues with junior high school students -- right on down to senate
committees -- that we can't easily fix problems we can't see. Thus,
solutions to long-term, global-scale systems threats require -- in a
democracy at least -- overcoming any collective denial that our "puny"
individual impacts can cause a major disruption at a planetary scale
or over timeframes longer than our lifetime.
Admittedly, I'm not going to seriously claim psychoanalysis is as
"important" an invention as the scientific method over the past 2000
years (as I recall one of your respondents proposed). What I see as a
key invention for the year 2000+, though, is an expanded systems
analysis that includes methods to build in an understanding of the
role of the unconscious of individuals which leads to lifestyles and
behaviors which "scale up" to create unanticipated collective
Although not directly responsive to your question, the invention I
really like -- think we will really need -- is a fusion of systems
analysis with psychotherapy. But the new field of "systems therapy" is
yet to be invented!, leaving me dangling uneasily between systems --
and psycho-analysis. Perhaps, if armed with insights from tools that
integrated physical, biological, social and psychological drivers of
our behaviors across a range of scales, rather than always chugging
merrily along in business as usual mode, we'd be more aware of the
range of consequences of our unconsciousness. Then, if we continued to
damage the collective or put the future at risk, at least that would
be more of a choice and less of a surprise. With best wishes to all
for the holiday season.
STEPHEN H. SCHNEIDER is a Professor in the Biological Sciences
Department at Stanford University, and the Former Department Director
and Head of Advanced Study Project at the National Center for
Atmospheric Research, Boulder; author of The Genesis Strategy; The
Coevolution Of Climate And Life; Global Warming: Are We Entering The
Greenhouse Century?; and Laboratory Earth (Science Masters Series).
Thanks for the reminder. Here's my shot. Perhaps the most
challengingly important inventions are those that open up new moral
dilemmas, and thus make some people question whether the invention
should have been allowed (or precursor discovery sought) in the first
place. This even applies to Howard Gardner's suggestion of classical
music: I would add Adorno's (I think) statement that, in contrast to
some composers, it is impossible to find evil that could have been
reinforced by any note written by Mozart. On the other hand, I believe
Wagner is still banned in Israel.
But my own suggestion is closer to my professional interests. As
delightfully examined in Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs and Steel,
writing was at least one of the most important inventions of all time,
but Sumerian cuneiform is too old for me to offer it, by 3000 years.
So, in agreement with Philip Anderson's nudge, the printing press is
my response to the question. After all, even the World Wide Web is
just a printing press with electronic and photonic elaborations. But I
can't resist looking forward at an editorial fantasy, ignoring all
sober estimations of the difficulties involved: a cumulative invention
which, if fulfilled, would certainly have a capacity for good and
evil. To quote William Gibson's Neuromancer:
".. and still he dreamed of cyberspace...still he'd see the matrix
in his sleep, bright lattices of logic unfolding across the
No keyboard, mouse or screen, just neural connections and a
many-dimensional space of, at least, information, to explore, organise
and communicate at will -- perhaps, dare I presumptuously suggest,
with occasional help from an editor. I fear it's too much for me to
expect, but my grandchildren could love it.
PHILIP CAMPBELL (whose oldest offspring is 13) was founding editor of
Physics World, and has been Editor of Nature since 1995.
Okay, I'll bite. Has anyone nominated free will yet? The concept is
more than 2,000 years old, but surely it deserves consideration as one
of our most important inventions ever. Almost as soon as philosophers
conceived of free will, they struggled to reconcile it with the
materialistic, deterministic views of nature advanced by science.
Epicurus insisted that there must be an element of randomness within
nature that allows free will to exist. Lucretius called this
randomness "the swerve." Modern free-willers find the swerve within
chaos theory or quantum mechanics. None of these arguments are very
convincing. Science has made it increasingly clear -- to me, anyway
-- that free will is an illusion. But more even than God, it is a
glorious, absolutely necessary illusion.
JOHN HORGAN, science writer; author of The End of Science : Facing the
Limits of Knowledge In The Twilight of the Scientific Age, has also
written freelance articles for The New York Times, The New Republic,
Slate, The London Times, Discover, The Sciences and other
publications. See EDGE: " Why I Think Science Is Ending: A Talk With
John Horgan" and EDGE: " The End of Horgan?" [thread unavalable].
My immediate reaction to the question was to choose between the
printing press and any of a set of public health-related inventions
(antibiotics, sewage treatment, ...). And since it seems as though we
might never have had the public health advances without the printing
press, but did, in fact, have the printing press without the public
health advances, I'd have to choose the printing press.
Why? Because it opened the possibility that knowledge (information,
wisdom) could be disseminated beyond a small number of privileged
individuals, thus permitting larger numbers to share or debate
world-views and to build upon past and present ideas. Thus far, at
least, new electronic technologies (radio, movies, television,
computers) have been employed as extensions of this broadening of
access to knowledge, altering the medium of exchange but not the
concept. At some time in the future they may lead to more fundamental
changes in the human condition, but not yet, I'm afraid.
RAPHAEL KASPER, a physicist, is Associate Vice Provost for Research at
Columbia University and was Associate Director of the Superconducting
Super Collider Laboratory.
My candidate would be the idea of the unconscious, the notion that
what we say and do and feel can spring from sources of which we are
not aware, that our choices and the qualities of our relationships are
deeply motivated by our histories. In recent years, the Freudian
contribution has tended be seen as historical...something we have
passed beyond...but I think that in large part this is because the
most fundamental ideas of psychodynamics have passed into popular
culture as a given. These ideas animate out understandings of who we
are with our families, with our friends and work. They add a dimension
to our understandings of what it is to be human that will become
increasingly important as we confront world in which artificial
intelligences are increasingly presented to us and our children as
candidates for dialogue and relationship (this year's Furbies are only
a beginning) -- and we are compelled to a new level of reflection
about what is special about being a person.
SHERRY TURKLE is a professor of the sociology of sciences at MIT. She
is the author of The Second Self: Computers and the Human Spirit;
Psychoanalytic Politics: Jacques Lacan and Freud's French Revolution,
and Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet.. See
Digerati, Chapter 31.
Others in this science-minded group have appropriately mentioned the
scientific method. Speaking for my discipline let me sharpen this:
When it comes to thinking smart -- to sifting reality from wishful
thinking -- one of the great all-time inventions is the control group.
If we want to evaluate medical claims (from bloodletting to new drugs
to touch therapy), to assess social programs, or to isolate influences
on human behavior we construct a controlled reality. By random
assignment we form people into equivalent groups which either receive
some experience or not -- thereby isolating the factor of interest.
The power of the controlled experiment has meant the death of many
wild and wacky claims, but also the flourishing of critical thinking
DAVID MYERS, professor of psychology at Hope College, is the author of
The Pursuit of Happiness: Who Is Happy, and Why, as well several
textbooks which include Exploring Psychology, and Psychology .
The most important invention has been a mental construct: the
realization that we on Earth form an integral part of a giant cosmos,
not a privileged form of existence in a special place. This invention,
once the province of a few intellectuals in an obscure corner of the
world, has now become widespread, though it remains a minority view
among the full population; its implications and successes lie all
DONALD GOLDSMITH is an astronomer and the author of over a dozen books
including The Astronomers, the companion volume to the PBS series of
the same title, and The Hunt for Life on Mars. In 1995, Dr. Goldsmith
was the recipient of the Annenberg Foundation Award for lifetime
achievement awarded by the American Astronomical Society. He has also
been awarded the Dorothea Klumpke-Robert prize for astronomy
Arnold Trehub :
The most important invention in the past two thousand years?
In my opinion it is the invention by Otto von Guericke in 1660 of a
machine which produced static electricity. This device was the
primitive tool which unlocked our understanding and application of
electricity. Modern power generation, communication, computation, and
almost all of our most important analytic devices stand on the
foundation of von Guericke's machine. A long line of basic
intellectual formulations from electromagnetism to the bioelectric
properties of brain mechanisms owe a debt to this invention. When we
discover how the human brain creates the covert models of its own
inventions, the structure and dynamics of the brain's own electrical
activity will undoubtedly be an essential aspect of the explanation.
ARNOLD TREHUB is adjunct professor of psychology, University of
Massachusetts at Amherst, and the author of The Cognitive Brain.
Okay, I'll weigh in with the invention of secularism -- getting out
from under the thumbs of the gods.
From all we can tell from historians and anthropologists, every
ancient society worshipped some god or other. Superstition ran
rampant. Human beings denied their own freedom and autonomy by
praising or blaming the gods for their fates. Not until some bold
minds like Ludwig Feuerbach, Karl Marx, Friedrich Nietzsche and
Sigmund Freud did it become thinkable, much less fashionable, to
preach atheism. These were inventors of a new order, one that allowed
human beings to make up our game as we go along, unfettered by
superstitions about the will of the gods or fear of their punishment.
For my part I am appalled at how slowly this invention has been
accepted. Over 60 percent of Americans still agree (somewhat, mostly,
or strongly) that, "The world was literally created in six days, as
the Bible says," (confirmed on three successive national probability
sample surveys by the Values and Lifestyles Program at SRI
International where I was director of research during the 1980s).
Islam claims over a billion devotees. And I find it remarkable the
number of highly educated, intelligent adults who still embrace a
childlike, wish-fulfilling belief in God.
Without kneeling down to positivism, or overestimating what is
knowable, or underestimating the mysteries that remain lurking in the
individual and social unconscious, let us nevertheless celebrate our
liberation from superstition, remain humble before forces that
transcend our individual egos, but accept the collective
responsibilities of human freedom, and sing, as my GBN partner,
Stewart Brand, did in the epigram for the Whole Earth Catalog: "We are
as gods so we might as well get good at it."
JAY OGILVY is a cofounder and Vice-President of Global Business
Network , responsible for training; headed "Values and Lifestyles"
research at SRI International; former professor of philosophy at Yale
and Williams College; author of Living Without a Goal and Many
The eraser. As well as the delete key, white-out, the Constitutional
amendment, and all the other tools that let us go back and fix our
Without our ability to go back, erase, and try again, we'd have no
scientific model, nor any way to evolve government, culture, or
ethics. The eraser is our confessor, our absolver, and our time
DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF is the author of Cyberia, Media Virus, Playing the
Future, and the novel Ecstasy Club. His books have been translated
into 16 languages, and his weekly column is syndicated by The New York
Times. He writes and lectures about technology and culture, and
teaches at New York University.
The most important invention in the last 2000 years has to be the
moveable-type printing press. Cheap book production put the printed
language in the hands of the masses and led directly to the rise of
literacy. Once you have a large literate class, you see the democratic
impulse flourish -- even a moderately educated populace begins to make
judgments about its rulers and its mode of government. Cheap book
production also advances both scientific and historical knowledge by
ensuring that valuable source documents are duplicated and preserved
and (just as important, really) ensuring that those old documents are
readable. Cheap book duplication makes it possible to quickly build a
cadre of scientists and historians who've read the same works and thus
share a common body of knowledge. Finally, moveable type makes it
possible for the past to speak to the future en masse in a way that
the evanescent oral tradition never could.
It's helpful to look at the other inventions listed as the most
important in the last 2000 years and try to imagine how they might
have come about had there been no moveable-type printing press.
MIKE GODWIN, an attorney, is counsel for the Electronic Frontier
Foundation, the San Francisco-based cyber-liberties organization, and
the author of Cyber Rights: Defending Free Speech in the Digital Age.
See Digerati, Chapter 12
Summary answer: The non-implemented 33-year English Protestant
Let me start my answer by making a few comments about the suggestions
made by other correspondents, and the general premise of the specific
answer I give myself.
At the time of writing many answers are already in, and so many good
ideas have been aired. I don't even need to refer to the list to guess
at some of them: the computer, the contraceptive pill, gunpowder, the
internal combustion engine, nuclear weapons. Wait! you say. What am I
suggesting, that nuclear explosions are good? Well, maybe not from the
perspective of how they may be used on Earth; but from another
perspective one could claim that they have been a major peacekeeping
influence over the past half-century, which has been comparatively war
less compared with what one might have expected given the other
technologies available: jet planes, napalm, guided missiles,... Note
that I wrote "one could claim" -- that does not mean that I am
claiming it, I am just posing an arguable position.
In the same way one could argue that the contraceptive pill, which has
indeed been nominated as one of the most important inventions, is
actually a bad thing. For example, we cannot know whether it has
robbed us of a 21st century Einstein who would have found the way to
unify the laws of physics whilst identifying a cure for cancer in her
The impossibility of knowing how the world might have been post hoc
opens up various avenues of thought, like what if Hitler had never
lived? (a matter explored in certain ways by Stephen Fry in his novel
'Making History'). Obviously this has a wide variety of implications
with gross repercussions, especially for the Jews, Gypsies and other
races which were the target of such atrocities. But for my present
purposes let me sidestep such huge considerations, and instead look at
some trivial ones. Suppose that you are the President of the Boston
and Area Volkswagen Beetle Owners Club: you might adjudge the
hypothesized nonexistence of Hitler as being most important in your
life because the Beetle would never have been built.
One therefore has to think about what important means in the context
of different people's lives. Right now the most important thing to a
Denver Broncos fan (I write as they stand 13-0) is whether a perfect
season is in the offing. Excuse me but isn't that totally
insignificant to some starving child in Ethiopia; but it is the thing
foremost in the mind of that Broncos fan, perhaps fatally-so: he may
crash whilst driving to the next game at Mile High Stadium and lose
his life, never getting to see his team romp the Superbowl again.
The outcome of my own mental perambulations on this question of the
most important invention is that all the technological products, of
recent years and old, would not only have been invented
sooner-or-later anyway, but also they are mere applications of ideas.
An idea may be important, even though it does not directly lead to an
important invention with a physical reality. An idea itself I count as
being an invention in the current context.
Further, how we got to where we are now is the result of many
important ideas producing branching points in history. Now, one could
make a case for the more distant (in history) branching points being
more fundamental, because all following events depend upon them. If
Alexander the Great, Charlemagne and William the Conqueror had never
lived, then neither would Hitler. But that form of reasoning leads to
a reductio ad absurdum.
Rather, I choose to ask: "How did we get to where we are now?" The
first step needed there is to define where we are, and the answer to
that is: with the USA being the powerhouse of most of the rest of the
world. Thus the branching point I look to is that which made the USA a
reality. I do not mean the Declaration of Independence. I mean: what
made the English first go and settle the Atlantic seaboard of North
The answer to that provides my answer to the "Most Important Invention
In The Past Two Thousand Years", but it is not original to me. The
thing I am going to describe was suggested to me by Simon Cassidy, a
British mathematician who lives in California.
Here is the story. When the Catholic Church (per Pope Gregory XIII)
brought in the reformed calendar in 1582, they decided to use a
second-best solution to the problem. Let me tell you, all Christian
calendar matters hinge on the question of the Easter computus. That
depends upon the time of the vernal equinox, which is ecclesiastically
defined to be March 21st, although astronomically-speaking the equinox
on the Gregorian calendar shifts over the 400-year leap-year cycle by
53 hours, between March 19 and 21. This follows from the long cycle
By far preferable from a religious perspective would be a calendar
which keeps the equinox on one day, requiring a shorter cycle. Even so
far back as AD 1079, Omar Khayyam had shown that an eight leap-years
in 33-year cycle provides an excellent approximation to the year as
measured as the time between vernal equinoxes. The advisers of Gregory
XIII knew this but instead recommended the inferior 97/400 leap-year
system we use, perhaps in the belief that the Protestants did not know
of the better 8/33 concept.
But in England, they did. John Dee and others (Thomas Harriot and
Walter Raleigh amongst them) had secretly come up with a plan to
implement a 'Perfect Christian Calendar' using the 33-year cycle (the
traditional lifetime of Christ). In that span there are eight
four-year cycles leading to a time-of-day wander by the equinox of
just below 18 hours. The problem is the one five-year cycle in each
grand cycle, during which the equinox steps forward by just below six
hours in each of four jumps before the following leap year pulls it
back by 24 hours. The full amplitude of the movement is 23 hours and
16 minutes. To get the equinox to remain on one calendar day
throughout the 33-year cycle one has to use as a prime meridian for
time-keeping a longitude band which is just right, and quite narrow.
It happened (in the late sixteenth century but with movement east
since due to the slow-down of the Earth's spin) to be at 77 degrees
west, which Cassidy terms "God's Longitude".
If you look down that meridian you will find that in the 1580s the
settled areas (in the Caribbean, Peru, etc.) were under Spanish, hence
Catholic, control. To grab part of God's Longitude and found a New
Albion, enabling them to introduce a rival calendar -- that Perfect
Christian Calendar -- and convert the other Christian states to the
Protestant side, England mounted various expeditions which historians
have since misinterpreted. In 1584-90 the so-called Lost Colony was
sent to Roanoke Island, a bizarre place to attempt to start
colonization but an excellent site from which to make astronomical
observations to fix the longitude and thus decide how far inland New
Albion should be. Similarly in 1607 the choice of Jamestown Island
seems bizarre from the settlement perspective -- why not out on
Chesapeake Bay, and away from the attacks of the local Algonquians led
by Pocahontas' father Powhatan? -- but makes sense from the paramount
need to grab a piece of God's Longitude. From the foothold the English
managed to gain, Old Virginny grew and later other colonizers came to
New England, and New Amsterdam was bought from the Dutch. But later
utility/developments do not reflect the original purpose of the
English coming to Roanoke Island and Jamestown Island any more than
the Eiffel Tower was built to provide a mount for the many radio
antennas which now festoon its apex.
After the fact the English did not reveal their prime motivation for
Raleigh's American adventures and the investment in the ill-starred
Jamestown colonizers, and all of this is yet to be properly teased
out. But if the English had never invented their non-implemented
33-year Protestant Calendar, then the USA as it is would not exist,
and all of the scientific, technological and cultural development of
the world over the past couple of centuries would be quite different.
In view of this I nominate that calendar, due to John Dee, as the most
important invention of the past 2000 years.
DUNCAN STEEL conducts research on asteroids, comets and meteors and
their influence upon the terrestrial environment, is Director of
Spaceguard Australia, and the author of Rogue Asteroids and Doomsday
It all depends on how you define important, of course. But to my mind
the most important invention is telecommunications technology: the
telegraph, the telephone, and now things like the Internet. Until
about 150 years ago, it was impossible to communicate with someone in
real time unless they were in the same room. The only options were to
send a message (or go in person) by horse or ship.
The early optical telegraphs of the 1790s made long-distance
communication possible at hitherto impossible speeds, at least for the
governments that built them, but they were not available for general
use. Then in the 1840s, the electric telegraph enabled people to send
messages over great distances very quickly. This was a step change,
though its social consequences took a while to percolate. At first,
telegraph operators became the pioneers of a new frontier: they could
gather in what we would today call chat rooms, play games over the
wires, and so on. (There were several telegraphic romances and
weddings.) The general public, of course, was still excluded, and had
no direct access to the real-time nature of the technology. But the
invention of the telephone in the 1870s made real-time
telecommunications far more widely available.
Today, in the developed world at least, we think nothing of talking
with people on the other side of the world. During the course of a
normal working day, many people spend more time dealing with people
remotely than they do face-to-face. The ubiquity of telecommunications
technology has become deeply embedded in our culture. Of course, life
has sped up as a result. But we watch TV and use telephones, fax
machines and, increasingly, the Internet, almost unthinkingly. If the
mark of an advanced technology is that it is indistinguishable from
magic, then the mark of an important one is that it becomes invisible
-- that we fail to notice when we are using it. That makes the
significance of telecommunications technology very easy to overlook,
TOM STANDAGE, Science Correspondent of The Economist and former deputy
editor of the Daily Telegraph's technology supplement, "Connected," is
the author of The Victorian Internet: A History of the 19th Century
Communications Revolution. He has written for many newspapers and
magazines including Wired, The Guardian, The Independent, and The
Daily Telegraph. He has also appeared as a technology and new media
pundit on BBC television and radio.
A digital ecosystem is a kind of universe, realized in electronic
media, in which we observe incremental evolution and complex
interaction. The classic examples come from work in Artificial Life,
such as Tom Ray's Tierra project in which strings of code compete for
resources, such as CPU time, and in which cascades of strategies for
success develop, with later ones exploiting the weaknesses and
loopholes of their predecessors.
But the idea is much broader. The worldwide web and browser
technologies have combined to create a massive digital ecosystem
populated by ideas and product descriptions, whose true impact on the
human lifestyle is only just beginning to be felt. The human mind was
never contained in the head, and has always been a construct involving
head, artifacts (such as pen and paper), and webs of communication and
interaction. We make our worlds smart so that brains like ours can be
dumb in peace. But the development of web and internet technologies
may well signal the next great leap in the evolution of thought and
reason. For we now have a medium in which ideas can travel, mutate,
recombine and propagate with unprecedented ease and (increasingly)
across the old barriers of culture, language, geography and central
Moreover, and in a kind of golden loop, we can use our experience with
more restricted digital ecosystems to improve our grip on the
properties of the kind of large, distributed, self-organizing system
of which we are now a proper part. Understanding these properties is
important both for policy making (what kind of regulation creates and
maintains the optimal conditions for productive self-organization in a
complex and highly uncertain world?) and for moral and economic
reason. Human brains are bad at seeing the patterns that will result
from multiple, ongoing, bidirectional interactions: see, for example,
the simulations that show, to most peoples surprise, that if each
person in a group insists on having just 30% of their neighbors 'the
same' as them (picked out by race, gender, sexual inclination or
whatever you like), that over a short period of time what evolves is a
highly segregated ecology containing a great many 'all X'
neighborhoods. Perhaps if our children get to play with quite
large-scale digital ecosystems, in games such as Sim City or using new
educational resources such as such as Mitchell Resnick's Starlogo,
they may yet learn something of how to predict, understand, and
sometimes avoid, such emergent patterns.
Digital ecosystems thus both radically transform the space in which
human brains think and reason, and provide opportunities to help us
learn to reason better about the kind of complex system of which we
are now a part. The double-whammy gets my vote.
ANDY CLARK is Professor of Philosophy and Director of the Philosophy/
Neuroscience/Psychology Program at Washington University in St Louis,
St Louis, MO, USA. He is the author of Microcognition, Associative
Engines and most recently Being There: Putting Brain, Body And World
In my opinion, the most important human invention is not an artefact,
such as the pill or the electric shaver. It's an idea, the very idea
that made all these technical successes possible: the concept of
Our brain is nothing but a collection of networks of neurons and
synapses that have been shaped by evolution to solve specific
problems. Yet through education and culture, we have found ways to
"recycle" those networks for other uses. With the invention of reading
and writing, we recycle our visual system to do word reading. With the
invention of mathematics, we apply our innate networks for number,
space, and time to all sorts of problems beyond their original domain
of relevance. Education is the key invention that enables all these
rewirings to take place at a time when our brains are still optimally
As David Premack likes to remind us, homo sapiens is the only primate
that has invented an active pedagogy. Without education, it would only
take one generation for all the inventions that other have mentioned
to vanish from the surface of the earth.
STANISLAS DEHAENE is a researcher at the Institut National de la Santé
studies cognitive neuropsychology of language and number processing in
the human brain. He is author of The Number Sense: How Mathematical
Knowledge Is Embedded In Our Brains. See EDGE: "What Are Numbers,
Really? A Cerebral Basis For Number Sense" by Stanislas Dehaene."
I'm amazed that fellow beneficiaries of this site are making such
heavy weather of your pre-millennial assignment. Incidentally, surely
some have bent your rules in that assorted Sumarians, Assyrians and
Egyptians, not to mention Chinese, Greeks and Romans, were well into
the recording of history long before 2,000 years ago.
Ab-reacting a little, I was tempted to enter the central
locking-systems on modern motorcars (a.k.a. "automobiles") as the
greatest contribution to the convenience of modern life, but that's a
trivial invention (and should have been incorporated on the model-T).
In any case, there's no doubt in my mind that the invention of the
differential calculus by Newton and, independently, by Leibnitz, was
the outstanding invention of the past 2,000 years. The calculus made
the whole of modern science what it is. Moreover, this was not a
trivial invention. Newton know that velocity is the rate of change
(with time) of distance (from Galileo, for example) and that
acceleration is the rate of change of velocity (with time), but it was
far from self-evident that these quantities could be inferred from the
geometrical shapes of Kepler's orbits of the planets. Nowadays, of
course, mere schoolboys (and girls) can play Newton's game -- it's
just a matter of "changing the variables", as they say.
In the seventeenth century, it was far from obvious that the
differential calculus would turn out to be as influential as later
events have shown. Indeed, Daniel Bernoulli claimed (in 1672) that
Newton had deliberately hidden his "method of fluxions" in obscure
language so as to keep the secret to himself. But Leibnitz's technique
was hardly transparent; it fell to Bernoulli himself to interpret the
scheme, much as Freeman Dyson made Feynman's electrodynamics
intelligible in the 1940s.
Both Newton and Leibnitz appreciated that the inverse of
differentiation leads to a way of calculating the "area under a curve"
(on which Newton had earlier spent a great deal of energy), but it was
Liebnitz who invented the integral sign now scattered through the
mathematical literature. That these developments transformed
mathematics hardly needs assertion.
But the effect of the calculus on physics, and eventually on the rest
of science, was even more profound. Where would be field theories of
any kind (from Maxwell and Einstein to
Schrodinger/Feynman/Schwinger/Weinberg and the like) without the
One can, of course, say much the same about the invention of
arithmetic, but that long predates 2,000 years ago. The calculus was
the next big leap forward.
JOHN MADDOX is Editor emeritus of Nature; physicist; author of
Revolution in Biology, The Doomsday Syndrome, Beyond the Energy
Crisis, and What Remains to be Discovered. See EDGE: "Complexity and
Catastrophe" A Talk With Sir John Maddox."
The tricky part of the question is not what the most important
invention is, but the qualifier "in the past two thousand years".
Technological innovations alter the frontier between humans and their
natural habitat. Because of the insuperable importance of the
environment, humans have always sought to maximize the advantage they
can take from the laws provided by nature. As a consequence, truly
fundamental innovations date back many thousand years ago. The most
outstanding innovation of all times was probably the domestication of
animals, followed by that of plants. Life in permanent homes, villages
and cities, the wheel, the sailing ship, engineering, script, as well
as conceptual achievements such as nations, democracy, religion, music
and songs, even taxes, interest and inflation all date back way before
the beginning of the common era. Several innovations suggested in this
forum were actually part of every day routines of Bronze Age people,
including, for instance, language, steel, paper, and reading glasses.
Scientific method must have also existed in some form, since 14th
century BC hydraulic installations in Greece perfectly meet the
parameters of the given environment. Even moveable type was known by
1500 BC, as the example of the Discos of Phaistos from Minoan Crete
shows. Finally, heliocentricity was first discovered by the astronomer
Aristarchos of Samos during the 3rd century BC -- but the concept
failed peer reviews and its acceptance was thus delayed by 1800 years.
Since the principle factors controlling people's lives today already
existed 2000 years ago, the skeptic in me would intuitively vote for:
nothing worth mentioning.
If we take a stroll through a Roman town 2000 years ago -- and ancient
Pompeii provides a good example of a city frozen in a moment of every
day life -- we would find a city containing factories (including one
for fish sauce), public baths, athletic stadiums, theaters, plastered
roads, proper sidewalks, pubs and, inevitably, brothels -- facilities
for people who were, for the most part, in better physical shape than
us. What distinguishes a modern city from its Roman predecessor? Two
things come to mind, the first belonging to the category of conceptual
realization: Christianity. The Roman dominion over the western world
lasted for about 1000 years -- and we might indeed still live in the
Roman era, if there would not have been a common denominator which
united the many tribes suppressed by the imperious control. This
unifying factor was Christianity. -- The second prominent innovation
which distinguishes a Roman from a modern city is electricity. Only
through the invention of electricity is it possible to operate laundry
machines and subnotebook computers; two inventions I personally
cherish the most, as well as many of the other items suggested in this
However, I recall enjoying a particularly Romantic evening in the
usually overcrowded, noisy Cretan tourist resort of Elounda. Some time
passed before I realized what made this evening so special -- a
general power shut down had knocked out all fluorescent lighting and
loudspeakers. Lanterns and kitchen stoves still worked -- with gas.
This brings me back to my original response to the question, what is
the most important invention of the past two thousand years. Nothing
EBERHARD ZANGGER is a geoarchaeologist and works as chief physical
scientist on many archaeological field projects in Mediterranean
countries. He is author of The Flood from Heaven: Deciphering the
Atlantis Legend and The Future of the Past: Archaeology in the 21st
If we suggest anything other than the Printing Press, Brockman will
cancel our Christmas bonuses and New Years Eve turkey. So: the
greatest invention in the past two thousand years is the printing
press. Next is the thermos bottle.
LEON LEDERMAN, the director emeritus of Fermi National Accelerator
Laboratory, has received the Wolf Prize in Physics (1982), and the
Nobel Prize in Physics (1988). In 1993 he was awarded the Enrico Fermi
Prize by President Clinton. He is the author of several books,
including (with David Schramm) From Quarks to the Cosmos : Tools of
Discovery, and (with Dick Teresi) The God Particle: If the Universe Is
the Answer, What Is the Question?
Marc D. Hauser:
I read through the list. Some good ones. I think it is interesting
that many found it so difficult to stick to the 2000 year cut off. Is
it really the case that all the big inventions happened so long ago?
This is surely an important and profound statement, if correct.
I have two suggestions, both within the cut-off period. First, the
electric light, born about 50 years before Joseph Swan put a patent on
the incandescent lamp in 1878, and then Edison in 1879. Having lived
in Africa, where one is often forced to read from fire light,
electricity is a god send. Moreover, having invented the incandescent
lamp, it didn't take too long to come up with the flashlight, another
handy device for those of us working in dark jungles. My second
suggestion for great inventions is the aspirin, invented, oddly enough
in 1853 in France. Clearly, other medicines have been around, many of
which serve comparable functions, but what a useful little pill. Among
the Maasai in Kenya, headaches are treated with goat feces, a mud
compact to the head. I prefer the aspirin personally.
MARC D. HAUSER, evolutionary psychologist, is Associate Professor at
Harvard University where he is a fellow of the Mind, Brain, and
Behavior Program; and author of The Evolution of Communication.
In my view, questions of "importance" cannot be answered without first
specifying "criteria of importance," of "important with respect to
Thus, I would give the following answer to your question:
"One criterion for "most important" is that which has most profoundly
altered patterns of human mating. Changes in mating can affect the
subsequent evolutionary course of the entire species, with cascading
consequences for virtually every aspect of human life. Although many
inventions have altered human mating over the past 2,000 years,
television must rank among the most important. Television has changed
status and prestige criteria, created instant celebrities, hastened
the downfall of leaders, increased the importance of physical
appearance, and accelerated the intensity of intrasexual mate
competition -- all of which have acutely transformed the nature of
sexuality and mating and perhaps forever altered the evolutionary
course of our species."
DAVID BUSS is Professor of Psychology at The University of Texas at
Austin; author of The Evolution of Desire : Strategies of Human
I nominate the printing press as the most important invention in the
past 200 years.
LEROY HOOD, M.D., Ph.D., is the William Gates III Professor of
Biomedical Sciences and founding chair of the Department of Molecular
Biotechnology at University of Washington. He is principal
investigator of the Leroy Hood Laboratory and coeditor (with Daniel J.
Kevles) of Code of Codes : Scientific and Social Issues in the Human
If it had not been invented over three thousand years ago, I should
have nominated the bell, but instead I choose the symphony orchestra.
This is because, like the bell, it establishes a dramatic link between
two seemingly disparate worlds -- the material world of science and
the world of the psyche and the arts. The symphony orchestra is surely
important because it made possible classical music, the nomination of
Howard Gardner. However, I choose it as a symbol for something that
may yet be to come, like space travel, the choice of Reuben Hersh.
What is more, I make my choice precisely because in just one point I
disagree with Howard Gardner -- classical music is crucially dependent
on physical inventions: musical instruments. I have long been
fascinated by one of the great conundrums of philosophy that was
clearly recognized by Newton's contempories: If there is only a
material world characterized by the so-called primary qualities such
as extension, motion, and mass, how are we to explain our awareness of
so many different secondary qualities such as colors, sounds, tastes,
and smells? The material world has no need of them and can never
explain them. Of course, we all know that science can now demonstrate
how specific sensations are correlated with physical phenomena, but a
correlation is not necessarily a cause -- for both correlates may have
a common cause -- and still less is it an explanation. How can the
vibrations of cat gut create in me the effect I experience when
listening to Beethoven's quartets? Perhaps I am naïve, but I am a
committed scientist. I cannot be content to regard the secondary
qualities as epiphenomena. I think there could be a physics, far
richer than the one we presently know, in which the secondary
qualities are as real as electric charge. The bell and symphony
orchestra call us to ponder higher things and wider possibilities, the
domain where science is reconciled with the arts.
JULIAN BARBOUR is a theoretical physicist and the author of Absolute
or Relative Motion : A Study from a Machian Point of View of the
Discovery and the Structure of Dynamical Theories : The Discovery of
John Henry Holland:
Board games, more than any other invention, foretell the role of
science in understanding the universe through symbolic reasoning.
Their essence is a simple set of rules for generating a complex
network of possibilities by manipulating tokens on a reticulate board.
Board games are found as artifacts of the earliest Egyptian dynasties,
so they don't truly fall within the 2000 year limit, but they have
undergone a rapid "adaptive radiation" in the last millennium. Thales'
invention of logic (the manipulation of abstract tokens under fixed
rules) was likely influenced by a knowledge of board games, and board
games offered an early metaphoric guide for politics and war in both
the East (Go) and the West (Chess). These insights, in turn, had much
to do with transition from the belief that the world around us is
controlled by the whims and personalities of gods to the outlook that
the world can be described in lawlike fashion. In the 19th and 20th
centuries board games became the inspiration for models, simulations
and mathematics, ranging from genetics and evolution to markets and
social interaction. Board games also offer a simple example of the
recondite phenomenon called emergence -- "much coming from little"
-- as when a fertilized egg yields a complex organism consisting of
tens of billions of cells. And, via a mutation into video-games, board
games offer the next generation an entry into the world of long
horizons and rigorous thought -- both in short supply in the current
JOHN HENRY HOLLAND is Professor of Computer Science at the University
of Michigan at Ann Arbor. The recipient of a MacArthur genius award,
he is credited with the discovery of genetic algorithms -- lines of
computer code that simulate sexually reproducing organisms. A leading
expert on complexity theory at the Sante Fe Institute in New Mexico,
Dr. Holland is the author of Hidden Order: How Adaptation Builds
Complexity and Emergence: From Chaos to Order.
Here is my $.02 on what is significant, in addition to all the
illustrious suggestions received so far:
Double Entry Accounting: While it is not all that sexy, it has been a
significant force in shaping the West and by the globalization of
market-driven economies, the world. Invented in 1494 by a Franciscan
monk named Luca Pacioli, double entry accounting was designed to help
the flourishing Venetian merchants manage their burgeoning economic
empires. Today, it remains the core methodology for most accounting
systems worldwide. It is the DOS of money.
Based on the principle of equilibrium (ie a balance sheet), double
entry accounting provides both control over the internal state of an
agent (in this case, an economic entity) and the necessary structures
required for individual organizations to cooperate/collaborate in the
emergent construction of modern market economies. In other words,
double entry accounting simultaneously enables organizations to
regulate themselves (through internal accounting and control
mechanisms) while also allowing the larger economy to assess the
relative health and worth of an enterprise using standardized
measures. If money is the blood and markets are the circulatory
systems of the global economy, then double entry accounting ledgers
are the nerve cells that both control and, in turn, respond to changes
in the flows of money.
GORDON GOULD is the President of Rising Tide Studios, parent company
of the Silicon Alley Reporter and the Digital Coast Reporter. Prior to
joining RTS, he was a principle at Thinking Pictures, an interactive
entertainment/database technologies company, and also oversaw the
Multimedia/Internet Group for Sony Worldwide Networks.
Richard Gatling started with a cotton seed sowing machine and
graduated to a weapon that rotated 10 barrels of 0.45 in bullets at a
rate of 1000 rounds a minute. The Confederacy didn't purchase the
thing 'til after the Civil War. But in the next several decades it was
bought and used by powerful armies around the globe. Finally it proved
its battle merit in Africa where it mowed down thousands of
unsuspecting Zulus. The Gatling Gun was the first weapon of mass
destruction. Moreover, it spawned the ongoing, if clumsy, debate about
weapons being banned for the sake of mankind.
BOB RAFELSON is a film director and producer whose work includes Head,
Five Easy Pieces, The King of Marvin Gardens, The Postman Always Rings
Twice, Mountains of the Moon, and Blood and Wine.
John Allen Paulos:
Thanks for your invitation (and for your project in general). I'd
respond more fully but the question seems too ill-defined to answer.
(I guess I still have something of the reductionistic, literal mindset
of a mathematician despite periodic forays into more nebulous realms.)
An invention or innovation that becomes essential has a tendency also
to become invisible as we, in a sense, "grow around" it. If I were
forced to name something, I guess I would go with Gutenberg's movable
type. And if I wanted to be puerilely self-referential, my choice for
most important invention might be the notion of a precise question.
(Nevertheless, I do see the value of vague ones as well.)
JOHN ALLEN PAULOS, professor of mathematics at Temple University in
Philadelphia, is the author of Innumeracy: Mathematical Illiteracy and
Its Consequences, Beyond Numeracy: Ruminations of a Numbers Man, A
Mathematician Reads the Newspaper, and Once Upon a Number: The Hidden
Mathematical Logic of Stories.
My first reaction to your question was The Zero, the next Infinity,
but my answer is The Infinitesimal Calculus.
Creating a bridge between the two archetypal fictions 0 and * it makes
sense of them. It has become a tool in just about every branch of
engineering and science. It provides a language for the formulation of
laws and a method for constructing explanations, solutions and
predictions. It is alive: its invention in the 17th century -- by
Leibniz and Newton independently -- articulated a concept that had
long been vaguely anticipated and applied implicitly, its development
is still in progress, leading to the resolution of old puzzles (e.g.,
Zeno's Paradox) while raising new ones (e.g., the continuum
hypothesis). Leibniz had been agonizing over what he called "the
labyrinth of the continuum" but the 19th century put the infinitesimal
calculus on a firm basis by analyzing the concepts of a limit and of
infinity from a variety of view points. Nowadays we are blessed with
new developments coming from the quarter of symbolic logic that arose
out of a digital (0,1) modeling of rational arguing: non standard
analysis vindicates Leibniz' use of "infinitely small" non-zero
VERENA HUBER-DYSON, a mathematician, has published research in group
theory, and taught in various mathematics departments such as UC
Berkeley and University of Illinois at Chicago. She is now emeritus
professor at the philosophy department of the University of Calgary
where she taught logic and philosophy of the sciences and of
mathematics which led to a book on Gödel's theorems published in 1991.
See EDGE: "On The Nature Of Mathematical Concepts: Why And How Do
Mathematicians Jump To Conclusions?" by Verena Huber-Dyson.
My instantaneous response was: Gutenberg's printing press with movable
type. This knee-jerk response was followed by a pause and reflection.
What is meant by "invention"? So, to the dictionary! Essentially,
anything that did not exist previously, whether it be a mechanical
device or art,literature,or music, is an "invention". Sobered by this,
I reflected again.
The skulls of l0 skeletons found in Skhul Cave at the foot of Mt.
Carmel in Israel in the l930's are similar in size and shape to modern
Homo sapiens. These have been dated at 80,000 years. A similar skull
found in a cave at Qafzeh, Israel has been dated at 9l,000 years.
Having the same size brain capacity, of course, does not necessarily
mean they had our same intelligence, although they were capable of
making beautiful stone tools.
We jump now to the Chevaux cave in France, where wall paintings of
animals extant in Europe at that time are beautifully depicted and
have been dated at over 30,000 years. l5,000 years later in the caves
at Le Portel and Lascaux in France, our ancestors were making
magnificent polychrome paintings of animals. Their stone tools at that
time and for the previous 5,000 years are comparable in technique and
beauty to any made by Native Americans in the past few hundred years.
Can anyone doubt that these Cro-Magnons could have learned to read and
write, to philosophise, to do math at a high level, to learn chemistry
and physics if magically brought into our culture of today? (Let's
leave out some fundamentalists who still don't believe in evolution.)
We find that cuneiform writing began about 5,000 years ago and quickly
evolved. By 2,500 years ago, the Greeks were producing masterpieces of
plays, literature, art, architecture, and they were doing some
wonderful things in mathematics and elementary observational science.
The Romans carried on these traditions until their fall. Christianity
came in and destroyed as much as it could of this great heritage in
western Europe including the great library in Alexandria.
Thus began the "Dark Ages" in Europe. The gradual dissemination of
knowledge, other than ecumenical literature (which wasn't much
faster!) was extremely slow. So, in the mid fourteen hundreds along
comes Gutenberg with his printing press and its movable type. Of
course, almost the first thing he did was print a bible or two and
they sold like hot cakes. True, fixed or non movable type had been
around for a short time, but the process wasn't much faster than
printing books by hand and was very costly, so, the rapid
dissemination of knowledge through printed books began with Gutenberg.
While it is true that the Dark Ages began to end about the year l,000,
real progress wasn't made until the Renaissance and, particularly,
with the rapid dissemination of knowledge via Gutenberg-type presses.
As books were published, people became inspired to learn to read.
Reading led to thinking about what had been read and to further
publications and to communications between people. The first world
wide web had been started, Anyone with a grain of sense can see what
this has led to!
So, John, after my consideration outlined above, I still think the
Gutenberg press with movable type is the greatest invention of the
past 2,000 years or, perhaps of the last 5,000 years after cuneiform
writing was invented!
GARNISS CURTIS is Professor Emeritus in the Dept. of Geology &
Geophysics at the University of California, Berkeley and Founder of
the Berkeley Geochronology Center. A colleague of Louis Leakey, he
determined the age (1.85 my) of the famous Zinjanthropus fossil which
rocked the anthropological world. His research continues that
endeavor: In 1994 with colleague Carl Swisher he re-dated Homo erectus
in Java at 1.8 my instead of the long-held .8 my.
Milford H. Wolpoff:
Science, because it brings us explanations of our world we may act on,
is by far the most important invention of this time. The fact that the
explanations are usually wrong brings the partial illusion of
progress, as well as tenure, which is a consequence of the
publications debating the various wrongnesses.
At its best, science works in a sort of Darwinian frame, where
hypotheses are the source of variation (cleverness counts) and
disproofs are the extinctions.
Developments from hypotheses are the analogues of ontogeny, and there
are various other processes that parallel the biological world such as
the roles of randomness (first publications carry excess influence by
virtue of being first, just as Microsoft systems succeed by being most
common but not necessarily best), and punctuated equilibrium
(scientific revolutions are complete replacement events). There are
even biological-like terms like "memes" that may describe how
hypotheses are transmitted. All and all, ever since when well before
Neandertal times we hominids developed significantly complex culture,
that extrasomatic way of transmitting hierarchically structured
information, we have enjoyed (in the sense of the Chinese curse)
MILFORD WOLPOFF is a paleoanthropologist, Professor of Anthropology at
the University of Michigan, author of Paleoanthropology ; and coauthor
(with Rachel Caspari) of Race And Human Evolution.
Last year, I held my tongue when it came to questions. No one however
asked directly as I recall what was most important to me. What is
going to happen to me after I die? This is only the prologue to other
questions that go to a root of human consciousness for me, is there
order or no order in the universe? If there is order does it represent
in my own life a pattern that is supposed to mean something for me.
What meaning does my life have? Is there order or simply random event
in my life? Does what I do effect the order of the universe in any
important way, in any way that effects its order?
According to the scholar of religious philosophy Harry Wolfson,
Spinoza believed that memory would survive, though he had no logical
proof for this belief. Human actions would therefore matter because
they would be bound up with memory. Evolution and DNA in part confirm
that at least in limited spans of time this is true. What will survive
me? What is most important in the last two thousand years, I feel is
the human capacity to enact symbols, to identify reality with them.
A friend who is both a distinguished mathematician and a rabbi, likes
to quote Maimonides to the effect that only original thoughts will
survive in the after life. This is after all, a consoling thought to a
mathematician, since "original thoughts" are the métier of the
sciences. And it is with "fear and trembling" that I tread through the
gates of EDGE site on the sacred ground of scientists.
As a novelist however, I beg to differ with the particulars of this
hope, for originality is not necessarily important in the world of
fantasy or rather what is compelling is not necessarily what is most
original. The very word "invention" has in some of the early
responses, a scientific, or pseudoscientific interpretation. I believe
(as someone who has seen briefly -- though in a state of such high
anxiety I can readily admit -- they may have been hallucinations --
ghosts), that the act of symbolic enactment is a key to the riddle of
consciousness and the most important of human "inventions." Nor do I
think such "enactment" or symbol drama is entirely a "human"
invention. For I believe I derives from play, though in human beings
it has come to combine play with the self reference of thought about
existence. The latter drama of symbols I think it is part of the
uncanny tension between the weight of the Unknown (which I choose to
personify with a Capital) and consciousness.
The story that has historically "galvanized" Jewish thought and then
Christian thought is the Biblical saga of the sacrifice of Isaac,
where a family or tribe obviously familiar with human sacrifice,
passed to its symbolic enactment. In the Sinai desert, years ago, a
German sociologist, Gunnar Heinneson, told me that the Jews were the
first people to do away with the exposure of unwanted infants. You can
speak volumes about human values, but without ceremonies that address
terror of the Unknown, the human majority falls prey to the
overwhelming anxiety of death and its handmaiden, survival.
I am not enough of a historian or anthropologist, to insist on what
Gunnar spoke of as fact. Symbolic enactment obviously goes much
further back in human history than the Biblical world in which we have
idealized patriarchs and matriarchs. It probably derives from the play
that we can observe among animals. It is however, a process that is
constantly being refined. I can appreciate that the Sioux Indians when
they knocked an opponent on the head with a stick rather than killing
him, also invented something that civilization needs -- an extension
that the rage for national sports teams may well answer. We recognize,
I think, as a society that feels that peace with ourselves is
important, that exposing children who are actually delivered, on door
steps, brutalizes us as a people of shared customs.
Steven Rose speaks of inventions as concepts. It is in bringing
ourselves back, again and again, to the concept of invention and in
particular of the invention of symbol in the light of our fear, that I
think both the human body and mind find themselves in a balance that
allows them to experience that mysterious state that Plato called the
"good" and the Bible referred to as "completed" or "perfect": or
"quiet within oneself."
I would challenge Colin Blakemore's assertion that control of human
destiny has shifted from the body to the mind. The mind after all is
finally subject within the human span to the body, just as the latter
has no conscious existence without the mind. We have to reinvent a
form of the Shamanism that seeks to bridge this division within
contemporary religion or suffer a terror that will devastate most of
us in mind and body. When we seek overwhelming joy, in sex, art,
music, even the pursuit of knowledge, or understanding, some of us are
asking to be just that, overwhelmed through the mind but throughout
the body and that has to be part of my "greater good" or "balance." At
Thanksgiving dinner, two prominent friends in the lofty upper spheres
of the university were mocking the blessing of human organs as they
passed to the recipient. I felt the opposite, that in the bleak sphere
of the hospital, it might be important to a system in shock. The
symbol dramatized recalls inspired pages of Milosz on the dance and
the way movement locates us in the universe.
Space grows bleak without a sense of this location and dangerous in
its suggestion of no meaning. I think we need a more powerful sense of
symbol if we are to avoid the fear that our very mastery of
technological invention spurs. If human sacrifice was found to be
unnecessary, so could heroic distinction based on war, national
identity based on exclusion, social identity based on wealth, even the
more exaggerated rewards of entrepreneurship, great wealth. Some years
ago I suggested (in the "Village Voice") that the Israelis and
Palestinians could find a lasting peace if they both acknowledged
large parts of what is called "Israel," what is called "the West
Bank," even what is called "Jordan," in other words, Biblical Canaan,
as sacred space and turned what was still empty into religious park.
Tragically, their statesmen can not invent such a symbolic space.
To answer Colin Blakemore, I certainly found the contraceptive pill a
liberation, at first. Soon, however, it seemed to confuse some of the
deepest impulses of sexual joy. I am not sure that the puritanical
strategies of the 19th century in which eroticism was buried in
passionate friendship were not more effective as symbolic of the
desire to be one with another than sex in which no children were
intended or hoped for. I would never want to go back to a world
without the pill or effective contraceptives, but I am not sure we
have mastered its implications for the body or the mind in that body.
For the pill has no ceremony, no weight of ritual behind it and the
meaning of its communion still awaits definition.
MARK MIRSKY is the author of many novels including Thou Worm Jacob,
Blue Hill Avenue, My Search for the Messiah, and The Red Adam. He is
editor of the recently published Diaries : Robert Musil 1899-1942 . He
is editor of "Fiction" and a professor of English at CCNY.
I am afraid the answer I find compelling is a rather trivial one. The
two most important inventions in the past two thousand years are the
computer and the atomic bomb. The computer will bring about the
greatest change to human life since the neolithic revolution, unless
the bomb destroys human life altogether.
DAN SPERBER is a researcher at the CREA in Paris. He is the author of
Rethinking Symbolism, On Anthropological Knowledge, Relevance:
Communication and Cognitions (with Deirdre Wilson), and Explaining
Culture: A Naturalistic Approach.
I would have to agree that Gutenberg's printing press is the most
important invention in the past two thousand years because it changed
forever the cost of knowledge distribution. What other inventions
wouldn't have happened if the inventor didn't have access to books? In
a sense I think we can trace many aspects of our information society
back to this single invention. In it's electronic form on the web we
see movable type and a yearning for information to be accessible and
free. The web is taking the cost of distributing information down near
zero. Gutenberg would be pleased to see where his invention has taken
LEW TUCKER is a Java evangelist and director of developer relations at
Sun Microsystems. He has worked in the areas of artificial
intelligence and parallel computers at Thinking Machines and is now
building an online community of software developers. See Digerati,
The most influential invention in the past 2000 years has been the
mirror: It has shown to each person how she or he appears to other
persons on the planet. Before the widespread production and use of
mirrors that came about in the Renaissance, humans could mirror
themselves in lakes and metallic surfaces. But only with the
installation of mirrors in everyday life did viewing oneself from the
outside become a daily habit. This coincided with the advent of
manners for eating, clothing and behaving. This again made possible
the modern version of self-consciousness: Viewing oneself through the
eyes of others, rather than just from the inside or through the eyes
Hence, consciousness as we know it is an effect of an advanced mental
task: To acknowledge the person experienced out there in the mirror as
the same as the one being simultaneously experienced from within. To
know that the person out there in the mirror is controlled by me in
here. The invention of the mirror is closely related to the problem of
free will and to the invention of the modern human ego as described in
this poll by Jaron Lanier.
The problem with overemphasis of conscious control is thus the problem
of supervising oneself through the eyes of others, rather than just
acting out. Many malaises of modern life stems from the fact that one
tends to consider the mirror-image of oneself as more real than the
view from within.
This new loop of the-outside-person-viewed-by-the-inside-person
recently got a parallel with the first images of the Earth seen on the
sky of the Moon: No longer just the planet we can touch and live on,
the Earth became a heavenly body comparable to other celestial
TOR NØRRETRANDERS is a science writer and communicator based in
Copenhagen, Denmark and the author of The User Illusion: Cutting
Consciousness Down to Size.
Over 4.6 billion years, the most important evolutionary inventions
have been those that code, store, and use information in new ways.
DNA; nervous systems; organic devices enabling cultural transmission
of information. In large perspective, the most important invention
over the past 2 thousand years will likely be something related to
computers, electronic information coded and handled outside of living
bodies. Its importance, however, has not yet been fully realized. I'm
going with something whose impact so far is more apparent. The
paleontologist in me wants to say something like the discovery of time
-- from inventions that have led to an intense sense of personal time
to others that have found out the age of the universe or the human
species. These inventions are perception-altering. But there's another
invention with greater impact. My vote is for flying machines.
Before 2 thousand years ago, sea craft allowed the overcoming of
water; the wheel, the conquest of earth. And now flying machines, the
conquest of air -- an invention that taps into the center of our
Many inventions change our lives but stay in the predictable range of
human nature. Firearms, for example, have had their impact mainly by
extending existing tendencies to bluff, subjugate, or kill in
immediate, face-to-face situations. Air craft have altered our
perceptions in ways that were evolutionarily unpredictable. They
changed the delivery of weapons, vastly destructive weapons, to a
inter-continental scale -- a wholly new scale, unprecedented in
evolutionary history. A flu virus that mutates in Kennedy Airport is
spread around the world within a day or two. And so the history of
disease has been altered by moving the month- or year-long dispersal
of disease to a time scale of hours.
We now meet other people en masse anywhere in the world in less than a
day's travel. Thus things foreign and strange have become familiar.
Ancient phobias and bias toward hatred and exclusion have been altered
widely. The CNN culture (instantaneous worldwide information) is an
extension of this; in my view, the actual intermingling of people from
one place to another has been the more important, precedent-shattering
development. Despite international information media, civil strife
remains the worst where cultural and physical insularity reigns.
Finally, flying machines have meant a global altering of how societies
approach food and other resources, tying humanity together in a
worldwide economy (resource exchange) driven by our interdependence.
Two million years ago, the movement of resources (like food and stone
tools) had become a development with extraordinary implications for
human evolution. But even 2 thousand years ago, no one could have
foreseen just how far this process of resource exchange has gone today
-- largely due to flying machines.
RICHARD POTTS is Director of the Human Origins Program, Dept. of
Anthropology, National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian
Institution in Washington. He is the author of Early Hominid
Activities at Olduvai and Humanity's Descent: The Consequences of
Ecological Instability, and co-author of Terrestrial Ecosystems
Lawrence M. Krauss:
If I take the word "important" to suggest an invention that will have
"the greatest impact on the next 2000 years" (after all, it is the
future that counts, not the pa st!),then the invention of the
programmable computer seems to me to be the most important invention
of the last 2000 years. ( I am not including in my list of
possibilities here ideas and concepts, since I don't think they
qualify as inventions, and I suspect that the intent of the question
is to explore technology, not ideas...). While the printing press
certainly revolutionized the world in its time, computers will govern
everything we do in the next 20 centuries. The development of
artificial intelligence will be profound, quantum computers may
actually be built, and I am sympathetic to the idea I first heard
expressed by my friend Frank Wilczek, that computers are the next
phase of human evolution. Once self-aware, self-programmable computers
become a reality, then I have a hard time seeing how humans can keep
up without in some way integrating them into their own development.
The only other invention that may come close is perhaps DNA
sequencing, since it will undoubtedly lead to a new understanding and
control of genetic and biology in a way which will alter what we mean
LAWRENCE M. KRAUSS, Ambrose Swasey Professor of Physics, Professor of
Astronomy, and Chair, Physics Department, Case Western Reserve
University, is the author of The Fifth Essence; Fear of Physics; The
Physics of Star Trek; Beyond Star Trek.
The most important invention is the idea of continued scientific and
technological progress. The individual who deserves the most credit
for this is Francis Bacon. Before Bacon progress occurred but was
sporadic, and most people did not expect to see new inventions in
their lifetimes. The idea of continued scientific progress became
institutionalized in the Academei dei Lincei, the Royal Society and
other scientific academies. the idea of continued invention was
institutionalized with the patent laws.
JOHN McCARTHY, a computer scientist and one of the first-generation
pioneers in AI, is at the Computer Science Department of Stanford
Clearly, none of us is playing by the rules in this game, otherwise we
would all concentrate on a few key inventions that are obviously the
most important -- the Indo-Arabic number system including zero,
computers, the contraceptive pill. Instead we are all reading the
suggestions so far and then trying to select something different.
Because I've come in late my friend Nicholas Humphrey has bagged my
first thought -- reading glasses, so I'll break the rules in two ways
by choosing something which was invented more than two thousand years
ago but refined over the last two thousand years.
In fact I'll break the rules a third time by choosing two things --
chairs and stairs. Apart from the fact that they rhyme, they also
represent an imaginative leap by seeing the value to the human anatomy
of an idealised platform in space at a certain height. A platform of,
say, 7 inches would enable a person to raise himself towards some
higher objective without undue effort, but that's as far as it goes.
But if, from that new starting point, a further platform of the same
height could be constructed, the objective could be more closely
approached. The refinements have all been to do with the fact that the
greater the height you want to reach the larger the floor area that
has to be taken up by the staircase. But landings and 180 degree turns
helped to solve that problem, along with the even later improvement of
a spiral structure.
The consequences of stairs have obviously included greater density of
occupation of site areas, but they have also included the propagation
of the Muslim religion by allowing muezzins to call the faithful to
prayer from minarets. As far as chairs are concerned, the same thought
process was involved -- seeing the value of a platform at just above
knee height and then constructing it.
Portability came in at some stage as well so that instead of finding
somewhere -- a wall, a rock, etc -- of the right height you carry
around with you, or position where you liked, the place to park your
butt. Somehow, the height was chosen, or evolved, so that we can stay
for the maximum time in a fixed position with eyes,hands and arms free
to do what eyes, hands and arms are good at. Lying down, standing up,
and squatting all get uncomfortable after a while, particularly for
reading or writing (although we have to accept that medieval monks
seemed to manage O.K, transcribing manuscripts standing up.)
KARL SABBAGH is a writer and television producer. His programs for the
BBC and PBS have encompassed physics, medicine, psychology,
philosophy, technology, and anthropology. Three of his television
projects have been accompanied by books: The Living Body, Skyscraper,
and 21St Century Jet: The Making And Marketing Of The Boeing 777.
I will cast my vote for anaesthesia. While this invention may not have
changed the world for all, it has certainly altered the lives of many
for the good. Imagine a world without anaesthesia. It makes me
Howard Gardner and I are probably one of the few couples who replied
to your request. Last night we were at a party and we mentioned this
project. I said that Howard's and my choices (Western classical music,
Howard; vs. anaesthesia, Ellen) showed how different we were, Howard
the optimist, I the one who thinks of the grim side of life. At the
party was Yo Yo Ma, who listened with interest and said, without
skipping a beat, that our two choices were not so different, because
"One is a form of the other." (Interpret that as you will I take it to
mean that music is the ultimate escape from pain, but also perhaps
that anaesthesia [when needed] is as pleasurable as music).
ELLEN WINNER is Professor of Psychology at Boston College, and Senior
Research Associate at Harvard Project Zero. She is the author of
Invented Worlds: The Psychology of the Arts ; and Gifted Children:
Myths and Realities.
Surely one of the most powerful earthly inventions has been the
ability to represent any phenomenon with numbers -- either analogue or
digital -- and then use this representation to predict outcomes in the
real world. This information revolution actually began before the year
zero with the Pythagoreans and has advanced through stages that
include the invention of calculus and, most recently, boolean algebra
and all the advantages of digital modeling.
And just as important has been the recent humbling realization that
there are limits to this scientific cartography; that, tempting as it
is, the map can never be mistaken for the real thing.
GEORGE JOHNSON is a writer for The New York Times, working on contract
from Santa Fe. His books include Fire In The Mind: Science, Faith, And
The Search For Order; In The Palaces Of Memory: How We Build The
Worlds Inside Our Heads; and Machinery Of The Mind: Inside The New
Science Of Artificial Intelligence .
The electric motor, in all its guises where electricty produces
mechanical motion. The industrial revolution was restricted to places
of work and shared production until the relatively small and clean
electric motor enabled the adoption of its bounty into the home; for
instance, refrigeration, automated cleaning, cooling, better heating,
entertainment, mass data storage, home medical care, and more
comfortable personal transportation.
True, many of these aspects were present in the home with simpler
technologies (e.g., gravity driven water flow, convective air flow),
but it was the electric motor which made them pervasive.
The change in our western lifestyle has been profound and has
completely changed our expectations of how our bodies should fit with
A question: what will it take for the computer revolution to truly
enter our lives in the way that the electric motor has enabled the
industrial revolution to do so?
RODNEY BROOKS, a computer scientist, is director of MIT's AI Lab.See
EDGE: "The Deep Question," A Talk With Rodney Brooks.
John R. Searle:
If by invention we mean actual technological advances -- as opposed to
ideas, theories and concepts -- then there have been some good ones.
One thinks of the printing press and the clock, for example. It is too
early to say for sure but my choice for the most important invention
of the past 2000 years would be the invention of the set of
agricultural techniques known collectively as "The Green Revolution".
This invention began in the 1960's and continues into the nineties,
indeed, it is now being extended into something that may well come to
be called "The Green-Blue Revolution", which would extend new
agricultural techniques to the oceans.
The most important invention of all time is the Neolithic Revolution.
With the Neolithic Revolution, humanity found ways to grow crops
systematically, and thus overcame both the instability and the
fragility of life itself that went with hunter-gatherer ways of
survival. Hunter-gatherers could neither stay in one place long enough
to develop a stable civilization, nor could they count on being able
to survive periods of drought and other forms of natural catastrophe.
With the Neolithic revolution, both of these problems were solved, and
civilization became a real possibility.
However the Neolithic Revolution brought problems of its own. In
particular, the Malthusian problem, because the growth of population
was constantly threatening to outrun the growth of food supply. For
the foreseeable future, at least, this problem has been solved by the
Green Revolution. The food supply has vastly outrun the increase in
population. At this time, if you read that there is a famine going on
in some part of Africa or Asia, you know that it is deliberately
politically created. There is no international shortage of food. There
is plenty of food to go around, and because of the Green Revolution,
there will be food to go around for the foreseeable future.
JOHN R. SEARLE is the Mills Professor of Philosophy of Mind at the
University of California, Berkeley and author of The Rediscovery of
the Mind, Minds, Brains and Science: The 1984 Reith Lectures,
Intentionality: An Essay in the Philosophy of Mind, The Construction
of Social Reality, and Mind, Language & Society: Doing Philosophy in
the Real World (A MasterMinds Book).
The most important invention, I believe, was a mathematical idea,
which is the notion of representation: that one system of
relationships, whether mathematical or physical, can be captured
faithfully by another.
The first full use of the idea of a representation was the analytic
geometry of Descartes, which is based on the discovery of a precise
relationship between two different kinds of mathematical objects, in
this case, numbers and geometry. This correspondence made it possible
to formulate general questions about geometrical figures in terms of
numbers and functions, and when people had learned to answer these
questions they had invented the calculus. By now we have understood
that it is nothing other than the existence of such relationships
between systems of relations that gives mathematics its real power.
Many of the most important mathematical developments of the present
century, such as algebraic topology, differential geometry,
representation theory and algebraic geometry come from the discovery
of such relationships, of which Descartes analytic geometry was only
the first example. The most profound developments in present
mathematics and theoretical physics are all based on the notion of a
representation, which is the general term we use for a way to code one
set of mathematical relationships in terms of another. There is even a
branch of mathematics whose subject is the study of correspondences
between different mathematical systems, which is called category
theory. According to some of its developers, mathematics is at its
root nothing but the study of such relationships, and for many working
mathematics, category theory has replaced set theory as the
foundational language within which all mathematics is expressed.
Moreover, once it was understood that one mathematical system can
represent another, the door was open to wondering if a mathematical
system could represent a physical system, or vise versa. It was Kepler
who first understood that the paths of the planets in the sky might
form closed orbits, when looked at from the right reference point.
This discovery of a correspondence between motion and geometry was far
more profound than the Ptolemaic notion that the orbits were formed by
the motion of circles on circles. Before Kepler, geometry may have
played a role in the generation of motion, but only with Kepler do we
have an attempt to represent the orbits themselves as geometrical
figures. At the same time Galileo, by slowing motion down through the
use of devices such as the pendulum and the inclined plane, realized
that the motions of ordinary bodies could be represented by geometry.
When combined with Descartes correspondence between geometry and
number this made possible the spatialization of time, that is the
representation of time and motion purely in terms of geometry. This
not only made Newtonian physics possible, it is of course what we do
every time we graph the motion of a body or the change of some
quantity in time. It also made it possible, for the first time, to
build clocks accurate enough to capture the motion of terrestrial,
rather than celestial, bodies.
The next step in the discovery of correspondences between mathematical
and physical systems of relations came with devices for representing
logical operations in terms of physical motions. This idea was
realized early in mechanical calculators and logic engines, but of
course came into its own with the invention of the modern computer.
But the final step in the process began by Descartes analytic geometry
was the discovery that if a physical system could represent a
mathematical system, then one physical system might represent another.
Thus, sequences of electrical pulses can represent sound waves, or
pictures, and all of these can be represented by electromagnetic
waves. Thus we have telecommunications, certainly among the most
important inventions in its own right, which cannot even be conceived
of without some notion of the representation of one system by another.
Telecommunications also gave rise to a question, which is what is it
that remains the same when a signal is translated from sound waves to
electrical impulses or electromagnetic waves. We have a name for the
answer, it is information, but I do not have the impression that we
really understand its implications. For example, using this concept
some people are claiming that not only is it the case that some
physical or mathematical systems can be represented in terms of
another but that, there is some coding that would permit every
sufficiently complicated physical or mathematical system to be
represented in terms of any other. This of course, brings us back to
Descartes, who wanted to understand the relationship between the mind
and the brain. Certainly the concept of information is not the whole
answer, but it does gives us a language in which to ask the question
that was not available to Descartes. Nevertheless, without his first
discovery of a correspondence between two systems of relations, we
would not only lack the possibility of talking about information, we
would not have most of mathematics, we would not have
telecommunications and we would not have the computer. This the notion
of a representation is not only the most important mathematical
invention, it is the idea that made it possible to conceive of many of
the other important inventions of the last few centuries.
LEE SMOLIN is a theoretical physicist; Professor of Physics at the
Center for Gravitational Physics and Geometry at Pennsylvania State
University; author ofThe Life of The Cosmos. See EDGE:" A Possible
Solution For The Problem Of Time In Quantum Cosmology" By Stuart
Kauffman and Lee Smolin. See The Third Culture, Chapter 17.
Paul W. Ewald:
My nominee is the concept of evolution by selection (which encompasses
natural selection, sexual selection, and the selective processes that
generate cultural evolution). It offers the best explanation for what
we are, where we came from, and the nature of life in the rest of the
universe. It also explains why we invent and why we believe the
inventions described in this list are important. It is the invention
that explains invention.
PAUL W. EWALD is an Evolutionary biologist; Professor of Biology at
Amherst College; author of Evolution Of Infectious Disease.
I nominate waterworks -- the system of plumbing and sewers that gets
clean water to us and dirty water away from us. I'm hard pressed to
think of any other single invention that has stopped so much disease
and death. It may not inspire quite the intellectual awe as something
like a quantum computer, but the sheer heft of the benefits it brings
about so simply makes it all the more impressive. John Snow didn't
need to sequence the Vibrio cholerae genome to stop people from dying
in London in 1854 -- he didn't even know what V. cholerae was -- but a
pattern of deaths showed him that to stop a cholera outbreak all he
needed to do was shut down a fouled well. Without waterworks, the
crowded conditions of the modern world would be utterly insupportable
-- and you only have to go to a poor city without clean water to see
this. Another sign of the importance of an invention is the havoc it
can wreak, and waterworks score here again--by cutting down infant
mortality they help fuel the population explosion, and they also let
places like Las Vegas suck the surrounding land dry.
I'd even go so far as to put the importance of the invention of
waterworks on an evolutionary scale with things such as language. For
hundreds of millions of years, life on land has been crafting new ways
to extract and hold onto water. With plumbing, however, you don't go
to the water -- the water comes to you.
CARL ZIMMER is a senior editor at Discover and author of At the
Water's Edge: Macroevolution and the Transformation of Life.
Most of the inventions mentioned thus far have affected, as one
contributor put it, the boundary between we humans and the natural
world that surrounds us. But the operations of the human body, and the
brain which it contains, support all of the experiences that make up
our existence. Discoveries that will permit us ultimately to take
charge of these functions, and shape them to our desires, surely
deserve nomination as the most important of the last two millennia.
These insights have flowed broadly from the entire area of science
that is now called molecular biology, but if I had to single out the
most important invention that made the entire process possible, then I
would select genetic sequencing for the honor. The new techniques
developed by Fred Sanger in Cambridge and Walter Gilbert at Harvard in
the mid-1970's allowed us to read out rapidly the specific information
stored in our genes and those of all other living creatures on Earth.
The new methods stimulated a burst of scientific energy that will
culminate in the next decade, when the sequence of about 3 billion
characters of DNA that encodes a typical human being will be fully
deciphered by the Human Genome Project. In subsequent explorations, we
shall how individuals differ in their heredity, and how this
information is expressed to produce the human body.
Thus far the effects of sequencing have largely impacted us through
such media worthy events as the identification of the stain on Monica
Lewinsky's dress, validation of the identity of the Romanov bones,
refutation of the claim of Anna Anderson to be Anastasia and
confirmation of Thomas Jefferson's affair with Sally Hemings. Much,
much more is yet to come.
The completion of the Human Genome Project will provide us with an
understanding, at the molecular level, of human hereditary disease
(much has already been learned about Huntington's disease, cystic
fibrosis and others). Further, by the application of other tools from
modern molecular biology, we shall be able to do something about these
afflictions in the near future.They will be treated and, if society
permits it, corrected at the genetic level. Beyond that, we shall come
to understand, and perhaps control, many unfortunate aspects of the
human condition that have until now been taken for granted, from
baldness to aging. Ultimately, we may elect to rewrite our genetic
text, changing ourselves and the way in which we experience the
Much more has been written on these subjects, but I hope that the
above brief treatment should be enough to qualify genetic sequencing
for the short list of finalists in this contest. I will also suggest
that any poll taken now would not do justice to this invention, as
most of its consequences still lie ahead of us. Perhaps we should
schedule another poll for the year 3998, to determine the best
invention in the period AD 1-2000?
ROBERT SHAPIRO, Professor of Chemistry at New York University, has
written three books: Life Beyond Earth (co-author), Origins: A
Skeptic's Guide to the Creation of Life on Earth, The Human Blueprint.
Terrence Sejnowski said it beautifully: the most important discovery
of the past 2000 years is the bit.
Not the bit used 8-by-8 to redisplay the old sequential sentences and
equations that carry too much of our culture today, but rather the bit
which, used in parallel profusion, can embody living realities far
beyond the expressive power of static text. Images and music are just
the beginning of it.
We are only now awakening to how much the printing press narrowed
western culture by driving it into text and sequentialism for the past
500 years. Is it true, as the recent da Vinci museum exhibit haughtily
claimed, that Leonardo was not a true scientist at all because, unlike
Galileo, he did not publish? Of course not. It was merely the fact
that his highly parallel, and hence visual, way of doing science was
hopelessly incompatible with the printing press. (He probably wouldn't
even have participated in this exercise, where we are all limiting our
responses to those which can be expressed in text even though we are
no longer forced by technology to do so.) Imagine, just for a moment,
that Gutenberg had invented the worldwide web instead of movable type.
It would have been Leonardo's science, with its focus on the living
and the parallel, that would have been ubiquitous. Galileo's endless
dialogs might have been lucky to get percussio per diem una.
In general, the equations of the book era have been superb at
describing the parts of reality that are dead and hence universal.
Bits seem much more capable of describing the other 99%. I have the
sense that biology is already moving into the post-book era. To
understand what biologists are doing, it is not enough to read the
sentences they write. Increasingly, one must run the programs they run
and get at the bits themselves.
JAMES BAILEY is a former computer company executive at Thinking
Machines; author, After Thought: The Computer Challenge to Human
John C. Dvorak:
Let's ignore discoveries (germs) and technique (scientific method) for
starters before determining the greatest invention. I also think that
the printing press, a device invented to rip-off the bible buying
public, should be relegated to its rightful place as number two to a
newer invention: computer networks. While it is quaint to romanticize
the past by citing the printing press, steam engines or 18th century
lug nuts, we ignore the fact that our inventiveness as a civilization
is increasing not decreasing and newer inventions might be the most
important inventions. And let's choose an invention in and of itself
and not argue about derivatives. Right now the invention that is
revolutionizing the world (more than TV, for sure) is the computer
network -- the Internet in particular. And, for what it's worth,
arguing that none of this would be possible if man hadn't learned to
grunt first, therefore grunting in the most important invention is
More interesting in this artificial discussion is how most of the
participants, including myself, have chosen an invention from their
particular specialty. Perhaps we should ask the question: what is the
most insidious invention of the past 2000 years? How about
specialization? Look at how insidious it is in this discussion. So
much so that it's frightening. Change the topic! Discussing the most
insidious inventions would be more fun than talking about the
importance of hay, the concept of infinity or Goedel! Just think of
the possibilities. We can nominate plastic, the stock market, roller
pens, the vibrating dildo, sitcoms, the literary agent, Microsoft
Visual BASIC, the animated cartoon, CNN, the wrist watch, roller
blades, the spinach souffle. The possibilities are endless. Let's
JOHN C. DVORAK is a columnist at PC Magazine, PC/Computing, Computer
Shopper, PC-UK, Info (Brazil), Boardwatch, Barrons Online, host of
Public Radio's Real Computing and host of Silicon Spin on ZDTV. He's
written 14 books, all out of print. Co-founder of the Oswald Spengler
Society. See Digerati, Chapter 8.
Well, this isn't very imaginative, but my choice-like that of several
other contributors-is the pill. Here's my reasoning. The greatest
invention of the last 2000 years is the one that is most likely to
help avert the collapse of civilization in the next 2000. Electricity
as a means of information and energy transport is a candidate. Modern
medicine is a candidate. But what drives or exacerbates every major
global problem is, ultimately, population growth. So whatever most
effectively limits population growth is the greatest invention-and
that's the pill, or contraception more generally.
KENNETH FORD is Director of Science Programs at the David and Lucile
Packard Foundation, former director of the American Institute of
Physics, and, with John Archibald Wheeler, the recent co-author of
Geons, Black Holes, and Quantum Foam: A Life In Physics.
As a researcher I believe that my most important contributions are
inherent in the younger people I have worked with and in the increase
of the universal knowledge that has resulted from the work that I have
done and have sponsored among universities and companies.
Stephen Budiansky points to importance of "the domestication of the
horse as a mount." The amazing fact is that mankind can learn new
technology at an amazing pace. Thus, in a relatively short time after
the introduction of the horse to America, the Apache were a great
light cavalry. I would also agree with David Shaw re: "the steady
accrual of both knowledge and technology that has accompanied the
rigorous application of the scientific method over a surprisingly
small number of human generations "; and with Stanislas Dehaene on the
"concept of education."
So I guess my invention violates the 2000 year (very Christian limit).
It is the intergenerational passing of information.
PHILIP BROCKMAN , a physicist, has been at NASA LaRC (Langley Field,
Virginia) since 1959 and is a recipient of NASA's Exceptional Service
Medal (ESM). His research includes: Shock tubes; Plasma propulsion;
Diode laser spectroscopy; Heterodyne remote sensing; Laser research;
Laser injection seeding; Remote sensing of atmospheric species, winds,
windshear and vortices. He is currently supporting all solid state
laser development for aircraft and spaceborne remote sensing of
species and winds and developing coherent lidars to measure wake
vortices in airport terminal areas.
The kind of thinking that makes it possible for all these people to
expound upon "the single most important invention of the last two
thousand years" is the most important invention of the past two
thousand years. There is no such thing as the single most important
invention of the last two thousand years. The evolution of technology
doesn't work like that. It's a web of ideas, not a zero-sum game.
Knowing how to turn knowledge into power is the most powerful form of
knowledge. The mindsets, mindtools, and institutions that make massive
technological progress possible are all part of an invisible cultural
system -- it is learned, not inherent, it was invented, not evolved,
it hypnotizes you to see the world in a certain way.
What we know as "technology" the visible stuff that hums and glows --
is only the physical manifestation of a specific kind of social
system. That invisible system, which emerged over the past three
centuries -- what Jacques Ellul called "la technique" and Lewis
Mumford called "technics" -- is more important than all the inventions
Do we lack one important invention at a crucial time when our
inventions are becoming our only evolutionary competitor? We haven't
formulated and agreed upon a way of making good decisions about the
powerful technologies we're so good at creating. We have a lot of the
knowledge that turns knowledge into power. We need more of the wisdom
that knows what we ought to do with the power of invention.
HOWARD RHEINGOLD, founder of Electric Minds, is the author of Tools
For Thought; Virtual Reality, and Virtual Communities.
As a cognitive linguist whose job is to study conceptual systems, both
conscious and unconscious, I was struck by what was meant by
o The most concrete "inventions" proposed have been gadgets,
mechanical or biological -- the printing press, the computer, the
birth control pill.
o A step way from the concrete specific technical innovations are
specific technical inventions of a mental character: Gödel's
Theorem, Arabic numbers, the nongeocentric universe, the theory of
evolution, the theory of computation.
o A step away from those are the general innovations of a mental
character in specific domains like science and politics, e.g., the
scientific method and democracy. I would like to go a step further
and talk about the invention that was causally necessary for all of
o The most basic fully general invention of a mental character is
The Idea of an Idea.
THE IDEA OF AN IDEA
It's a bit more than 2,000, more like 2,500 years, at least in the
West. It is an 'invention" in the sense that human beings actively and
consciously thought it up: to my knowledge, it is not the case that
every indigenous culture around the world objectifies the notion of an
idea, making it a thing that can be consciously constructed.
What is required for all other human inventions is the notion that one
can actively, consciously construct new ideas. We take this for
granted, but it is not a "natural" development. Three-year-old
children have lots of ideas and even make up new ideas. But they do
not have the Idea of an Idea that they can construct anew; they do not
naturally arrive at the idea that making up new ideas is something
people do. The Idea of an Idea is a cultural creation that children
have to learn.
It is only with the Idea of an Idea that we get conscious specific
intellectual constructions like democracy, science, the number system,
the computer, the birth control pill, and so on. The Idea of an Idea
is the generative notion behind the very notion of an invention and is
causally necessary for all specific inventions.
GEORGE LAKOFF is Professor of Linguistics at the University of
California at Berkeley, where he is on the faculty of the Institute of
Cognitive Studies.He is the author of Metaphors We Live By (with Mark
Johnson), Women, Fire and Dangerous Things: What Categories Reveal
About the Mind, More Than Cool Reason: A Field Guide to Poetic
Metaphor (with Mark Turner), Moral Politics, and Philosophy in the
Flesh (with Mark Johnson).
Discovery of Childhood and Invention of Universal Schooling
Instead of suggesting a device, I nominate the educational process
essential for a high velocity of inventiveness, the evolution of a
technological society, and the spread of culture. While schools for
the elite have existed since antiquity, the recognition of childhood
as a unique time of life with special schooling, social, and emotional
needs, and different standards of justice, is relatively recent and
associated with Rousseau, Freud, Piaget, and their forbearers.
The discovery that children are not "miniature adults" led to a more
humane society and was essential to tailoring educational programs to
the developmental stage of the student. Universal schooling (and even
the modern university) were born both of this increased appreciation
of the special needs of children and necessity -- the industrial
revolution needed a cadre of trained workers, scientists and
engineers. The complexity of modern technology and the associated
acceleration of innovation demand a critical mass of creative minds
and hands that cannot be provided by occasional virtuosi toiling in
ROBERT R. PROVINE is Professor of Neurobiology and Psychology at the
University of Maryland.
The Thermionic Valve by DeForest in 1915 really was the birth of the
electronic age. Without this invention most of us would never have
been born. Without electronics this planet would not be supporting the
massive numbers of people now living in the West. We would not be able
to communicate, compute, manufacture and distribute atoms on the scale
we now enjoy. There would be no radio, TV, computers, Internet, modern
medicine -- engineering, international travel of any scale, atomic
power and almost everything we currently take for granted. In fact our
species and our civilisation would have stalled without this
This Thermionic Valve is very closely followed by the Transistor in
1945 with Bardeen and Shockley creating the foundation for what you
are reading this on -- the PC.
PETER COCHRANE is Head of Research, BT Laboratories, UK and the author
of Tips for Time Travelers.
The great invention of the modern era is the invention of organized
science -- scientific societies and journals that foster the
accumulation and dissemination of knowledge based on evidence rather
than on authority or revelation. Before the invention of these
organizations the accumulation of scientific knowledge was slow,
because there were no established venues for criticism and education
-- essential social interactions at the heart of science. Now that
these organizations (in the developed world) have become very large
(necessitating the proliferation of many subdivisions, to allow for
personal interactions on a human scale) they facilitate the
unprecedented opportunities for collective knowledge and self
knowledge that so many of us enjoy.
SAMUEL H. BARONDES, M.D. is the Jeanne and Sanford Robertson Professor
of Neurobiology and Psychiatry at the University of California at San
Francisco, President of the McKnight Endowment Fund for Neuroscience,
and the author of Molecules and Mental Illness and Mood Genes: Hunting
for Origins of Mania and Depression.
My nomination for the most important invention of the past 2000 years
is probability theory, which was mainly put together in a series of
steps between 1654, when Blaise Pascal proposed a solution for
splitting the pot in an unfinished game of chance, and 1843, when
Antoine Cournot offered a definition of chance as the crossing of two
independent streams of events. I don't nominate it simply because
probability theory laid the foundation for statistical analysis, which
provided us with a vocabulary without which most scientific
discoveries made in the last century would have been (literally)
Nor do I nominate probability theory because it gave us for the first
time a trustworthy tool for deciding how to apportion belief to
multiple sources of evidence. Probability theory had even more
fundamental epistemological implications whose importance is
under-appreciated in our time because those implications are so
seamlessly integrated into the foundations of our modern world view.
Until the nineteenth century, the idea that there could exist deep
regularities underlain by pure chance -- regularities arising from
distributions of events which were themselves the result of
multifarious unmeasurable causes -- was not only almost unknown
(Aristotle had hinted at it, as he seems to have hinted at
everything), but actually philosophically repugnant. It required the
invention of probability theory to make this idea thinkable.
In making it possible to think about such abstract regularities,
probability theory rescued us from two philosophical shackles which
had held us back from the beginning of history: that of needing to
postulate a centralized controller that made everything come out
right, and that of assuming that "what you see is what you get" --
i.e. that the proper objects of scientific study are roughly identical
to the direct objects of the senses. Though perhaps they have still
not been totally removed, those philosophical shackles needed to be at
least loosened in order for science to get moving.
A whole new world of law-obeying objects to be studied was opened up
by probability theory. Neither Darwin's theory of natural selection,
nor Maxwell's theory of statistical mechanics (both published in the
same year, only 140 years ago) would have been thinkable before
probability theory was thinkable. Without probability theory, human
kind would be (and was) unable to even conceive of the explanations
for many -- probably most -- of the phenomena which we have ever
CHRISTOPHER WESTBURY is a post-doctoral fellow at the University Of
Earlier contributors have already staked out the intellectual high
road of mental constructs like scientific method and the calculus, so
I'll retreat to the most prosaic, literal reading of your question:
What is the one device invented by one person at one moment during the
past 2,000 years that has had the most influence to date?
I'd be a traitor to my inky profession if I didn't at least echo the
nominations for Johann Gutenberg's movable-type printing press. But in
the spirit of the game, let me throw support behind something else:
Alessandro Volta's electric battery of 1800.
Static electricity was known since at least the time of the Greeks,
but study of it had largely stalled. When Pieter van Musschenbroek
built and discharged the first Leiden jar in 1745, nearly killing
himself in the process, he also jolted the study of electricity back
to life. But it was Volta's invention of a steady source of current,
inspired by the electrochemical observations of Galvani, that
revolutionized technology and physics. Without it, Oersted could not
have proved that electricity and magnetism were different faces of the
same force, electromagnetism. Electrochemistry itself offered clues to
the underlying electrical nature of all matter. And of course, Volta's
battery was the forerunner of all the electrical devices that have
transformed the world over the past two centuries.
What I find so appealing about Volta's creation is that it had immense
practical significance but also opened to us a world of physical
phenomena that in themselves changed our understanding of the
universe. Yet it was not a bolt-from-the blue inspiration; it pulled
together other threads of discoveries by Volta's contemporaries.
There's a lesson about greatness in there somewhere.
JOHN RENNIE is the editor in chief of Scientific American magazine.
Text is Special
It seems to me, as it will no doubt to many others, that the printing
press has changed the world more than any other invention in the past
two millennia. But why has such a simple technology had such a huge
influence? And why, after 500 years, has no one invented a superior
I suspect it is because text has a special relationship to the human
mind. Printing is the third wave of the biggest innovation, the one
that started with the co-evolution of language, thought and speech.
Speech makes it possible to share and compare internal models of the
external world, a capacity that gives huge selective advantages. But
acoustic vibrations are ephemeral, fading in moments into questions
about who said what, when.
Writing, the second wave, is like a blast of super-cooled air that
freezes words in mid-flight and smacks them onto a page where they can
be examined by anyone, anywhere, anytime. Writing makes possible law,
contracts, history, narratives, and poetry, to say nothing of sacred
texts with their overwhelming influence. Printing transformed writing
into the first mass medium, and the world has never been the same
since. In the half-century that followed Gutenberg's 1446 Bible, over
a thousand publishers printed over a million books. Suddenly it was
worthwhile, and soon essential, for even ordinary people to learn to
read. Now, people whose brains have trouble with this trick are at a
severe disadvantage, while some with particular verbal felicity can
make a living just by arranging words on paper.
Is text merely a temporary expedient, necessitated by the previous
inability to record and transmit speech and images? We will soon see.
In just a few years, sensors, storage and bandwidth will be so
inexpensive that many people will be unconstrained by technical
limitations. This affords a fine opportunity to make bold predictions
that can be completely and embarrassingly wrong, as wrong as the
predictions that said that e-mail would never catch on. In that
spirit, I predict that voice and video attachments to e-mail, "v-mail"
and "vid-mail," will be the next big thing, and they will create all
manner of consternation. At first they will be hailed as more personal
and more natural, thanks to the increased content carried by
intonation and exclamations. But soon, I predict, the usual human
strivings will give rise to problems.
Many people who previously were forgiven as "liking to hear themselves
talk" will be revealed as actually wanting to hear others listen to
them talk. Some, especially bosses, will send long soliloquies to
hundreds of other people in the expectation that they will be listened
to in full. The wonderful veil of privacy in which a reader considers
a text will be rent. You won't be able to jump around and skip whole
paragraphs in v-mail and vid-mail, as you can in e-mail. Time and
attention will be revealed as the valuable resources they are. Many
people will post electronic notices equivalent to the one a friend has
on his answering machine, "Leave a message, but please KEEP IT BRIEF."
To solve this we will, of course, turn to still more technology.
V-mail will be transformed automatically into text so we will have a
choice of mediums. What will we choose? It will depend. For emotional
endearments, and many narratives, v-mail and vid-mail. For simple
facts, and subtle ideas, however, I think will we choose text, at
least, that is, until our brains are changed by the selective forces
unleashed by these technologies.
RANDOLPH NESSE, M.D., is Professor of Psychiatry, Director, ISR
Evolution and Human Adaptation Program, The University of Michigan and
coauthor (with George C. Williams) of Why We Get Sick: The New Science
of Darwinian Medicine.
My initial thought of how to define the importance of an invention was
to imagine the impact which would be caused by its absence. But having
just sat through yet another viewing of "Its A Wonderful Life," I am
inspired to leave contemplation of the contingencies of history to
others better suited to the task. And so, I will vote for my
"knee-jerk" response: The Telescope.
The invention of the telescope and its subsequent refinement and use
by Galileo marked the birth of the modern scientific method and set
the stage for a dramatic reassessment of our place in the cosmos. A
technological device revealed conclusively that there is so much more
to the universe than is available to our unaided senses. And these
revelations, in time, have established the unforeseen vastness of our
dynamic, expanding universe, shown that our galaxy is but one among
countless others, and introduced us to a wealth of exotic
BRIAN GREENE is a professor of physics and of mathematics at Columbia
University, and author of The Elegant Universe: Superstrings, Hidden
Dimensions, and the Quest for the Ultimate Theory.
I'd say the notion that people can govern themselves, rather than
being governed by someone who claims divine right. (I'm wrestling with
that one myself right now, on the Internet.)
ESTHER DYSON is president of EDventure Holdings and editor of Release
1.0. Her PC Forum conference is an annual industry event. She is the
author of Release 2.0: A Design for Living in the Digital Age. Release
2.1, the paperback upgrade, is now available. Dyson is also active in
industry affairs; she is the interim chairman of ICANN, the Internet
Corporation of Assigned Names and Numbers; a member of the board of
the Electronic Frontier Foundation and is a member of the President's
Export Council Subcommittee on Encryption. See Digerati, Chapter 9.
Given the amount of self-reference in the answers so far, I'm tempted
to nominate this very discussion list as the greatest invention of the
past two thousand years, and hopefully out-meta all the other
I think part of the problem here is the fact that inventions by nature
are cumulative, and so when asked to pick out the single most
important one, you're inevitably faced with a kind of infinite
regress: if the automobile is the most important invention, then why
not the combustible engine? (And so onŠ) In that spirit -- and in
the spirit of nominating things you happen to be working on
professionally -- I'd nominate the ultimate cumulative invention: the
city. Or at least the modern city's role as an information storage and
retrieval device. Before there were webs and telegraphs making
information faster, there were cities bringing information physically
closer together, and organizing it in intelligible ways. It's not a
stretch to think of the original urban guilds as file directories on
the storage device of the collective mind, combining disparate skills
and knowledge bases and placing them into the appropriate slots.
(Manuel De Landa has a wonderful riff on this in the first section of
his new book, A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History.)
But of course, the city isn't an invention proper, at least in the
conventional way that we talk about inventions. It's the sum total of
multiple inventions, without each of which the modern city as we know
it might not exist.
I think what this discussion makes clear is that we need a better
definition of "invention"!
STEVEN JOHNSON is the author of Interface Culture: How New Technology
Transforms The Way We Create And Communicate, and the editor-in-chief
of FEED Magazine. He is working on a new book about cities and
Had you asked two years ago I would have nominated the airplane, for
it symbolizes the essence of invention by being composed of other
inventions: the wheel, the bicycle, a glider, a prop, and a 12 horse
power engine. The airplane is important because it diminishes our
parochial view, it too changed the manner of warfare (Hey, nice
bomber) and one can argue that it was an early form of the space
shuttle. But if by important you mean sweeping, the utility of
electricity is pivotal to so many things mundane and great, especially
the broadcast of information, the A train, the monitors that tell me
if my flight is delayed, this modern version of Gutenberg's press, and
Les Paul's guitar. Thomas Edison received 389 patents for electric
light and power, and Nikola Tesla patented his Apparatus for
Transmitting Electrical Energy. Of course humans no more invented
electricity than we invented flight, but utility is key. As I write I
am preparing to go out for New Year's Eve, and packing a flashlight,
just in case an old programming shut down code of 99 introduces us to
the Y2K bug a year early. Should such a power failure occur then, the
impact of electrical utility will be known.
DELTA WILLIS wrote The Hominid Gang: Behind the Scenes in the Search
for Human Origins, and The Sand Dollar and The Slide Rule, Drawing
Blueprints from Nature.
Inventions. My top runners in the area of physical inventions would
have to be ways of harnessing energy, ways of moving around the world,
and ways of communicating. And since the latter two depend on the
first, I'd have to put my money on energy control and use.
But we've got lots of psychological and social inventions as well. I'd
put the idea that all people are equal at the top of the list. This is
an invention that we could make better use of.
JOSEPH LEDOUX is a Professor at the Center for Neural Science, New
York University. He is the author of the recently published The
Emotional Brain: The Mysterious Underpinnings of Emotional Life,
coauthor (with Michael Gazzaniga) of The Integrated Mind, and editor
with W. Hirst of Mind and Brain: Dialogues in Cognitive Neuroscience.
See EDGE: "Parallel Memories: Putting Emotions Back Into The Brain"
-- A Talk With Joseph LeDoux.
I've been pondering your millennial/bimillennial question, and I'd
like to cheat a bit by giving several answers.
I too offer a vote for the oral contraceptive pill. It is
revolutionary for two reasons. First, it makes a quantum leap in the
effectiveness of technologies for the control of human fertility --
which are found in every known culture and likely date back more than
a hundred millennia. The pill and subsequent devices have the
potential for a revolutionary impact on the lives of women from
puberty to menopause everywhere in the world, allowing women to
control their own fertility and thus enabling members of half the
human species to control their own adult lives.
In addition, these devices have the potential to save the planet Earth
from the ongoing disaster of human overpopulation, with its present
and future dire consequences globally of mass poverty, pandemics,
warfare and violent confrontations over scarce resources,
environmental degradation, and wholesale species extinctions.
My next vote for most important technology of the last two thousand
years goes to the gun, or more precisely to a series of European
inventions of more efficient killing technologies. The ship-mounted
cannon, the Spanish trabuco and the British Snider rifle -- to mention
just a few weapons from recent centuries -- in the hands of members of
authoritarian societies (whose populations had exceeded the carrying
capacities of their homelands given contemporary agricultural
technologies), bent on acquiring new territories, propelled across the
Atlantic and Pacific Oceans by ships built according to the most
advanced maritime technologies of their eras, effected the European
conquest of large portions of the planet's landmass, resources, and
human populations. The momentous consequences of the European conquest
will continue to play themselves out in every sphere of human life
around the globe over the next millennium.
My final vote goes to the revolutionary improvements in hydraulic
engineering made beginning in the late nineteenth century that have
solved what has for millennia been the single greatest problem of
urban life: how to bring clean water in and human waste out of a large
nucleated settlement. While the Roman waterworks were brilliantly
designed (and their epoch crosses the bimillennial cut-off point of
this exercise), improvements in sanitation made only a century or so
from the present led, in industrial societies like Britain and the
United States, to a revolutionary drop in the death rate from
infectious diseases transmitted by fecal contamination of drinking
water. These advances in hydraulic engineering have extended human
life spans even more than the subsequent discovery of antibiotics.
This technology has diffused only slowly around the globe as it
encounters barriers created by unequal distributions of wealth and
power. Even so, ironically, our resulting increased longevity, and the
increases in population fertility that declines in mortality rates
confer when they are unchecked by other variables, contribute
dramatically to the ongoing crisis of human overpopulation. This makes
the wide availability of advanced contraceptive technology, invented
two generations later, all the more critical for the survival and
well-being of our species and of the entire planet.
MARIA LEPOWSKY is Professor, Department of Anthropology, University of
Wisconsin, and author of Fruit of the Motherland: Gender in an
John, The most important invention is the Indo-Arab counting system
with 0,1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9 with its positional information content (so
111 means one hundred plus one ten plus one unit), zero symbol, and
operator property that by adding a zero to the righthand end of a
string multiplies the number by the base value of 10. This system of
counting and enumeration is completely universal and lies at the
foundation of all quantitative science, economics, and mathematics.
JOHN BARROW is is Professor of Astronomy at the University of Sussex,
England. He is the author of The World Within the World, Pi in the
Sky, Theories of Everything, The Origins of the Universe (Science
Masters Series),The Left Hand of Creation, The Artful Universe, and
Impossibility: The Limits of Science and the Science of Limits.
To avoid incurring the wrath of some scholars, I wanted to add this
parenthetical note (see asterisk below) to my statement about
language. Hopefully, it clarifies my point a little; or, at least,
My first candidate is "language"; specifically, our initial
realization* of its creative potential, building on the intuitions of
the ancient Greeks and Romans. Language is the life-force and body of
communica- tion. It comprises all forms of symbolic creations,
expressions and systems which we use to communicate: from the
mathematical to the vernacular. Without language, every other
invention and innovation may never have existed -- including humor!
My close-second candidate is E = mc2. When we learn to tap the full
meaning of that piece of symbolic language, we'll create more than a
Nuclear Age. "Matter is frozen energy," Einstein said, relating the
essence of his insight into the mass-energy relationship. Similarly,
language is frozen meaning. When we discover how to unleash the
enormous energy in meaning by continually transforming information
(data, ideas, knowledge, experience) in new contexts, we'll make a
quantum leap in applying the power of language to achieve our boldest
* Note: Some people may choose to date our first deep realization of
language's potential around the late 1700's. That's when the first
scientific study of the nature and origins of language began to unfold
through the systematic, comparative studies of the German scholars
Friedrich Schlegel, Jakob Grimm, and Franz Bopp. Others may focus on
the work of Ferdinand de Saussure whose general, descriptive method
led to some basic laws that relate to all languages (about 3,000 or
more now). My broad statement is meant to embrace the "makeup" of
language: its symbolic nature, structures, semantics, and boundless
usages. I'm not simply referring to the inventive act of classifying
spoken and written languages into families, or categorizing the growth
patterns of language, or charting the evolution of grammar.
TODD SILER is the founder and director of Psi-Phi Communications, a
company that provides catalysts for breakthroughs & innovation in
business and education. He is the author of Breaking the Mind Barrier
and Think Like A Genius.
The horse collar as the most important high-tech invention.
Developed around 1000 AD in northern Europe, it allowed the region to
be farmed efficiently and so, it could be argued, was responsible for
the rise of civilization there. It also gave its possessors great
war-making potential -- think of knights in armour, for example.
PETER TALLACK, former book editor of Nature, is science editor of
Weidenfeld & Nicholson, London.
The most important invention in the past two thousand years is the
printing press. When William Caxton published 'The Canterbury Tales'
in the 15th Century with his newly invented printing machine, he
dramatically accelerated the separation of human culture from nature,
eclipsing the direct experience of natural processes that continues in
the oral tradition and replacing it by words on a page. This cut in
two directions. (1) The power of nature diminished so that science and
technology could start the systematic program of gaining knowledge for
control of nature, liberating people from drudgery and freeing the
imagination. (2) At the same time, nature was degraded to a set of
mechanisms that humans could manipulate for their own purposes, and
the 'rape of nature' began in earnest. We are now reaping twin
harvests: vastly expanded potential for written communication through
the internet, as in this exchange of views at the Edge web site; and a
vastly degraded planet that won't support us much longer, as things
are going. Can we use one to save us from the other? We can now
connect with each other as never before; but what about nature?
BRIAN GOODWIN Brian Goodwin is a professor of biology at the
Schumacher College, Milton Keynes, and the author of Temporal
Organization in Cells and Analytical Physiology, How The Leopard
Changed Its Spots: The Evolution of Complexity, and (with Gerry
Webster) Form and Transformation: Generative and Relational Principles
in Biology. Dr. Goodwin is a member of the Board of Directors of the
Sante Fe Institute. See EDGE: A New Science of Qualities; The Third
Culture, Chapter 4.
DNI: DISTRIBUTED NETWORKED INTELLIGENCE
In their classic book The Mathematical Theory of Communication, Claude
Shannon and Warren Weaver stated: "The word communication will be used
here in a very broad sense to include all of the procedures by which
one mind may affect another. This, of course, involves not only
written and oral speech, but also music, the pictorial arts, the
theater, the ballet, and in fact all human behavior."
Marshall McLuhan pointed out that by inventing electric technology, we
had externalized our central nervous systems; that is, our minds. We
had gone beyond Freud's invention of the unconscious, and, for the
first time, had rendered visible the conscious.
Composer John Cage went further to say that we now had to presume that
"there's only one mind, the one we all share." Cage pointed out that
we had to go beyond private and personal mind-sets and understand how
radically things had changed. Mind had become socialized. "We can't
change our minds without changing the world," he said. Mind as an
extension became our environment, which he characterized as "the
collective consciousness," which we could tap into by creating "a
global utilities network."
We create tools and then mold ourselves in their image.
Seventeenth-century clockworks inspired mechanistic metaphors ("the
heart is a pump") just as mid-twentieth-century developments in
self-regulating engineering devices resulted in the cybernetic image
("the brain is computer").
Although you don't hear much about cybernetics today in the scientific
arena, its impact is profound. "The cybernetic idea" stated
anthropologist Gregory Bateson, "is the most important abstraction
since the invention of Jesus Christ." He went on to note that we were
now living in " a world of pattern, of order, of resonances in which
the individual mind is a subsystem of a larger order. Mind is
intrinsic to the messages carried by the pathways within the larger
system and intrinsic also in the pathways themselves."
In this new epistemology Ockham's Razor meets Gödel's Proof and the
fabric of our habitual thinking is torn apart. Subject and object
fuse. The individual self decreates. (See By The Late John Brockman).
Reality passes into description and thus becomes invention. Such
ideas, which appear destructive, liberate, allowing us to lay waste to
the generalizations of previous epochs which we decreate by getting
through the history of our words. As Wallace Stevens wrote: "The words
of the world are the life of the world. It is the speech of truth in
its true solitude: a nature that is created in what it says."*
Key to this radical rebooting of our mindsets is the term information,
which, in this scheme, refers to regulation and control and has
nothing to do with meaning, ideas, or data. Bateson pointed out that
"information is a difference that makes a difference." The raindrop
that hits the ground behind you contains no information. The raindrop
that hits you on the nose has information. Information is a measure of
effect. Systems of control utilize information if and when they react
to change to maintain continuity.
If Newtonian physics taught us that it is the parts that matter, we
now inhabit a universe that interacts infinitely with itself, where
importance lies in the patterns that connect the parts. This becomes
problematic because how can a system describe itself without
generating a spiralling ladder of recursive mirrors?
Nobody knows, and you can't find out.
The description of the plane of language is the plane that holds our
descriptions. Language becomes a commission, a dance, a play, a song.
With the Internet we are creating a new extension of ourselves in much
the same way as Mary Shelley's Dr. Frankenstein pieced together his
creation. Only this creation is not an anthropomorphic being that
moves through accretive portions of space in time. It is instead, an
emergent electronic beast of such proportions that we can only imagine
its qualities, its dimensions.
Can it be ourselves?
I propose as the most important invention of the past two thousand
years: Distributed Networked Intelligence (DNI). DNI is the collective
externalized mind, the mind we all share, the infinite oscillation of
our collective consciousness interacting with itself, adding a fuller,
richer dimension to what it means to be human.
JOHN BROCKMAN is the author/editor of nineteen books, including By The
Late John Brockman, The Third Culture: Beyond the Scientific
Revolution, Digerati: Encounters with the Cyber Elite and (with
Katinka Matson) How Things Are: A Science Took-Kit for the Mind. He is
founder of Brockman, Inc., a literary and software agency, President
of Edge Foundation, Inc., founder of The Reality Club, and editor and
publisher of EDGE, a Website presenting The Third Culture in action.
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