Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The last questions

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For two decades, the writer and literary agent John Brockman has posed a single question on an annual basis to a group of scientists and other intellectuals. The notion of such a question—which changes every year—was inspired by the work of the late artist and philosopher James Lee Byars, whose declaration of intent serves as a motto for the entire project: “To arrive at the edge of the world’s knowledge, seek out the most complex and sophisticated minds, put them in a room together, and have them ask each other the questions they are asking themselves.” Brockman publishes the responses on his website, and the result resonates so strongly with just about everything that I love that I’m embarrassed to say that I hadn’t heard of it until this week. (I owe my discovery of it to an article by Brian Gallagher in the excellent magazine Nautilus.) It’s an attempt to take the pulse of what Brockman calls “the third culture, [which] consists of those scientists and other thinkers in the empirical world who, through their work and expository writing, are taking the place of the traditional intellectual in rendering visible the deeper meanings of our lives, redefining who and what we are.” Questions from recent years include “What is your favorite deep, elegant or beautiful explanation?” and “What scientific concept would improve everyone’s cognitive toolkit?” And the result is manifestly so useful, interesting, and rich that I’m almost afraid to read too much of it at once.

This year, to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of the project, Brockman issued a somewhat different challenge, asking his usual group of correspondents: “What is the last question?” By way of explanation, he quotes an essay that he originally wrote in the late sixties, when he first became preoccupied with the idea of asking questions at all:

The final elegance: assuming, asking the question. No answers. No explanations. Why do you demand explanations? If they are given, you will once more be facing a terminus. They cannot get you any further than you are at present…Our kind of innovation consists not in the answers, but in the true novelty of the questions themselves; in the statement of problems, not in their solutions. What is important is not to illustrate a truth—or even an interrogation—known in advance, but to bring to the world certain interrogations…A total synthesis of all human knowledge will not result in huge libraries filled with books, in fantastic amounts of data stored on servers. There’s no value any more in amount, in quantity, in explanation. For a total synthesis of human knowledge, use the interrogative.

Brockman strongly implies that this year’s question will be the last. (To which I can only respond with a lyric from The Simpsons: “To close this place now would be twisted / We just learned this place existed.”) And he closes by presenting the final question: “Ask ‘The Last Question,’ your last question, the question for which you will be remembered.”

I’ve just spent half an hour going through the responses, which are about as fascinating as you’d expect. As I read the questions, I felt that some of them could change lives, if they were encountered at just the right time. (If you know a bright teenager, you could do worse than to send the list his or her way. After all, you just never know.) And they’re a mine of potential ideas for science fiction writers. Here are a few of my favorites:

Jimena Canales: “When will we accept that the most accurate clocks will have to advance regularly sometimes, irregularly most of the time, and at times run counterclockwise?”
Bart Kosko: “What is the bumpiest and highest-dimensional cost surface that our best computers will be able to search and still find the deepest cost well?”
Julia Clarke: “What would comprise the most precise and complete sonic representation of the history of life?”
Stuart Firestein: “How many incommensurable ideas can we hold in our mind simultaneously?”
George Dyson: “Why are there no trees in the ocean?”
Andrew Barron: “What would a diagram that gave a complete understanding of imagination need to be?”

Not all are equally interesting, and some of the respondents were evidently daunted by the challenge. A few of the submissions feel like an answer—or an opinion—with a question mark stuck awkwardly on the end. As Gallagher notes in Nautilus: “The question ended up prompting many of the academics among the responders to just restate one of their research targets, albeit succinctly.” The computer scientist Scott Aaronson wrote on his blog:

I tried to devise a single question that gestured toward the P vs. NP problem, and the ultimate physical limits of computation, and the prospects for superintelligent AI, and the enormity of what could be Platonically lying in wait for us within finite but exponentially search spaces, and the eternal nerd’s conundrum, of the ability to get the right answers to clearly-stated questions being so ineffectual in the actual world. I’m not thrilled with the result, but reading through the other questions makes it clear just how challenging it is to ask something that doesn’t boil down to: “When will the rest of the world recognize the importance of my research topic?”

But it’s impossible to read it without wondering what your own question would be. (None of the participants went with what many science fiction fans know is the real last question: “How can the net amount of entropy of the universe be massively decreased?” But maybe they knew that there’s insufficient data for a meaningful answer.) I don’t know what mine is yet, but this one from Jonathan Gottschall comes fairly close, and it can serve as a placeholder for now: “Are stories bad for us?”

Written by nevalalee

February 8, 2018 at 8:43 am

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