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The Greatest Inventions of the Past 2,000 Years

by by John Brockman, editor

2000, Simon & Schuster, NY, 192 p., hardcover, US$22.00
ISBN 0-684-85998-X

This is an entertaining little book for your next airplane trip. It contains about 100 responses from a select group of scientists and other thinkers to the question, "What is the most important invention in the last 2,000 years?" Answers range from the whimsical (eraser, mirror) to the well-known (printing press, airplane) to the anticipatory (autonomous tools, genetic engineering). Contributors range from Nobel laureates to a former member of "The Monkeys" pop rock group. The typical contributor has written several books.

I was delighted to see some of my profession's favorites submitted as candidates: probability theory, mathematical modeling, and double-entry accounting.

Of course, the list includes harnessing electricity, computers and the Internet.   Other entries that will enlighten and entertain you include: lenses, hay, classical music, number systems, calculus, contraceptive pills. Ideas themselves and the scientific method were entered. Social developments were submitted as candidates: free will, democracy, Christianity and Islam, social justice, the green revolution, and philosophical skepticism

This is provocative reading about the creative process. The authors' historical and social perspectives make this especially interesting.

Most amazing submittal: "Computers as Modelers of Climate" by William H. Calvin, a theoretical neurophysiologist. He's concerned about a climate-triggered collapse of civilization that might arise by a change in ocean currents. Every few thousand years we can expect a dramatic cooling or re-warming of the Earth. The transition might take less than a decade. The last ice age ended about 18,000 years ago, so we're overdue. Calvin describes one possibility, that increased rain in the North Atlantic could alter the flow of warm currents along Europe. He says "twenty-two out of twenty-three Europeans could starve." If we can better understand our atmosphere's non-linear behaviors, we might be able to forestall a catastrophe.


Persons interested in the philosophies of scientists and other thinkers may wish to visit http://www.edge.org/


—John Schuyler, August 2000.

Copyright 2000 by John R. Schuyler. All rights reserved. Permission to copy with reproduction of this notice.