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The Greatest Inventions of the Past 2000 Years

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What was the greatest invention of the past 2,000 years, and why? This provocative question was posed to some of the world's foremost scientific and creative thinkers, including several Nobel laureates. Their answers may surprise you. Lively and thought-provoking, The Greatest Inventions of the Past 2,000 Years is not only an entertaining book about science and creativity but also an opportunity to peek inside the minds of some of the leading thinkers of our time.

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Overview

What was the greatest invention of the past 2,000 years, and why? This provocative question was posed to some of the world's foremost scientific and creative thinkers, including several Nobel laureates. Their answers may surprise you. Lively and thought-provoking, The Greatest Inventions of the Past 2,000 Years is not only an entertaining book about science and creativity but also an opportunity to peek inside the minds of some of the leading thinkers of our time.

With contributors such as Stewart Brand, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Howard Gardner, Sherry Turkle, Steven Pinker, Jared Diamond, Freeman Dyson, Murray Gell-Mann, and Leon Lederman, The Greatest Inventions of the Past 2,000 Years is an invitation to a salon of our leading thinkers. Their answers to the editor's question are as varied as the group itself. Candidates for the greatest invention include the expected, such as the computer and movable type (although even here there are intriguing insights into how these inventions have altered our civilization), and the surprising, such as the Indo-Arab counting system, the lens, classical music, and the eraser. Some contributors comment perceptively on their colleagues' nominees.

Not all of the respondents limited their answers to concrete objects. Some chose as greatest "inventions" the concepts of free will, marketing, democracy and social justice, the scientific method, and our disbelief in the supernatural, arguing persuasively that ideas are inventions as much as are mechanical objects.

The Greatest Inventions of the Past 2,000 Years is a provocative, insightful look at how science, technology, and the creative mind have altered our lives and changed the world.

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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
Author and literary agent Brockman has edited a cutting-edge volume of the most significant inventions of the past two millennia. The book itself attests to the giant shift in the way in which research is carried out: these short essays were first written for Edge (www.edge.org), a website and information arena for intellectuals. Each entry is a response to an e-mail question sent by Brockman (e.g., "What is the Most Important Invention in the Past Two Thousand Years? and Why?"). With more than 100 thought-provoking selections, the book looks at inventions as varied as the printing press and the scientific method. This is a surprising and intriguing collection with many entries that one might not even consider an invention at first glance. Brief bona fides are given for each contributor; their credentials and diverse science backgrounds are impressive. Recommended for public libraries.--Dayne Sherman, Southeastern Louisiana Univ., Hammond Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
From The Critics
While no one is certain when the first lens was invented, we know that these curved pieces of glass were improving the eyesight of Europeans by the 14th century. In the 17th century, two lenses were put together to form a telescope and, soon afterward, the microscope - tools that altered our view of ourselves and the universe.

The lens is just one of dozens of objects deconstructed in The Greatest Inventions of the Past 2,000 Years. Others that make the cut include the birth-control pill, classical music, the city, the computer, hay, self-government, probability theory, the Hindu-Arabic number system and the printing press.

The 100-plus scholars, scientists and writers whose short essays fill this book are members of the invitation-only "Third Culture" e-mail list, where the book's central question was first posed and passionately debated. Hosted by literary agent and author John Brockman, this virtual geek salon includes such iconoclastic scientists and thinkers as Richard Dawkins, Steven Pinker, Esther Dyson and Steven Johnson. The discussion spilled over into Brockman's Web site ..., from which he assembled these essays.

The book's best moments come when a contributor picks a seemingly random, everyday object and then demonstrates how its introduction to humanity changed the course of history. Without the plow, we might never have tamed the countryside, hence there would be no cities to speak of and no large-scale agriculture.

Because this is such a wired set, some contributors say the history of inventions has reached its apogee with the Internet. Universal schooling? Electricity? The printing press? These inventions are not praised for their revolutionary qualities; they simply made it possible for the Internet to exist.

Such pronouncements are short-sighted and border on being arrogant. We'll need at least another half millennium before we can accurately gauge the importance of the world's most recent inventions. Yet it's difficult to fault these thinkers' enthusiasm. As artist, composer and scientist Henry Warwick says in the book, "We are all of our time; and while we can dream of other times, we always dream in our own time."

As is to be expected from analytic minds, no small amount of ink is spilled grappling with the question itself. Does an invention have to be a physical thing, or can the word be extended to include concepts? And how does one, for that matter, measure importance?

Indeed, a playful spirit can be found in almost all the responses. Many participants fudge on the time constraints, sometimes nominating inventions older than 2000 years. The participants poke fun at each other's nominations and their self-referential musings. Reading this book, the reader senses how much more exciting the actual discussion must have been. It's as though we've been invited to a wonderful dinner party, but had to watch it through a telescope with a cloudy lens.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780684859989
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster
  • Publication date: 1/12/2000
  • Pages: 192
  • Product dimensions: 5.87 (w) x 8.79 (h) x 0.78 (d)

First Chapter

From Part I: How We Live

Tom Standage
Telecommunications Technology

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 the Internet. Until about a hundred and fifty years ago, it was impossible to communicate with someone in real time unless that person was in the same room. The only options were to send a message (or go yourself) 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 introduction of 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 get together 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 until the invention of the telephone in the 1870s.

Today -- in the developed world, at least -- we think nothing of talking with people on the other side of the globe. In 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. 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 technology is that it becomes invisible -- that we fail to notice when we are using it. The significance of telecommunications technology is thus very easy to overlook and underestimate.


Tom Standage, the science correspondent of the Economist and the former deputy editor of the Daily Telegraph's technology supplement, "Connected," is the author of The Victorian Internet: The Remarkable Story of the Telegraph and the Nineteenth Century's On-line Pioneers.


Colin Tudge
The Plow

Why do we always think of bears, wolves, rhinos, and tigers as inhabiting the wildest and woolliest places -- mountain, forest, desert, and swamp? Why should we not see them, in our mind's eye, on the pleasant slopes of Berkshire or in the Napa Valley? Because, of course, those easy places have long since succumbed to agriculture, and wild species have mostly been marginalized. How could this have happened on such a scale -- worldwide -- and so quickly? Primarily because of just one invention: the plow. Human beings have probably practiced farming of a kind for at least thirty thousand years, but it was not until they began to break the soil systematically that they truly began to dominate the landscape and produce crops on what for many a century has been an industrial scale. The so-called neolithic revolution of ten thousand years ago probably represents the start of this -- not the beginnings of agriculture, but the start of agriculture on a large scale. The plow has enabled human beings to break the ecological law which says that big, fierce animals are rare, for we are the most formidable of all, and yet there are now six billion of us. The plow has transformed the world's landscape and pushed our fellow species to the sidelines. The first plows easily predate this book's prescribed time frame, the last two thousand years, but the plow has come on a great deal in that time, and a device this significant just has to be included.

Farming, defined broadly, is the management of environment in ways that increase the human food supply. There are many ways to do this without breaking the soil in extenso, ways that surely were practiced long before the neolithic revolution. Cultivation of individual plants is horticulture (from the Latin hortus, for "garden") and includes crop protection (driving away the monkeys as well as the insects), weeding, and pruning, along with propagation. Management of animals is pastoralism, and there are also many forms of herding on the way to domestication; Australian aborigines control kangaroos by setting judicious bush fires, for instance. Such proto-farming makes a huge difference to human well-being, but its output is always limited, and it leaves the general landscape more or less intact.

But arable farmers take the landscape by the scruff and bend it to their will. The native flora is stripped back to the bare soil, a mere substrate. The original landscape is irrelevant. Many scholars have suggested that the banishment of Adam and Eve from Eden represents the beginnings of large-scale agriculture: people had overhunted the local deer and gazelles, and the rising seas at the end of the last Ice Age had drowned the coastal plains, forcing people who had previously managed the local flora for a hobby to cultivate full-time. I believe that Cain's murder of Abel is emblematic of the start of arable farming; the "tiller of the ground" kills the gentle shepherd. The authors of Genesis clearly acknowledge the significance of this. For them the breaking of the ground, the obliteration of God's own landscape, was blasphemy. The furrowed soil is truly the mark of Cain. The ancient conflict of arable farmer and pastoralist persisted deep into the twentieth century -- reflected in the song from Oklahoma: "Oh, the farmer and the cow-man should be frie-e-e-ends!"

The first plows were forked sticks drawn by human power -- surely horrendous labor, like most of arable agriculture until recent times. For all the effort, though, these plows merely scratched the ground. Advance since then has taken three forms: the use of stronger and more versatile materials -- first wood capped by iron, then iron alone, then steel; the introduction of more and more subtle designs -- first the share was added to break the soil, and then the moldboard, which turns it over; and finally, the increase in traction power, on which all other advances depended. Human gave way to ox power long before the time of Christ, but the heavy horses that came later were faster and even stronger (although they ate more and so were less thrifty). The Chinese invented the collar that enabled horses to pull without strangling themselves. But it was the tractor that truly pushed the world into its modern phase. Tractors partake of Isambard Kingdom Brunel's philosophy of engineering: if a given force won't do the job, then multiply by ten and try again. The heaviest clay soils could not be plowed by horses, but tractors can do anything. Thus the English county of Lincolnshire was committed to sheep grazing for two thousand years; but now, with modern tractors, it is border-to-border cereal and potato country. America's prairies show the same phenomenon on a vastly greater scale.

Forget the computer and the telegraph, forget writing, forget even the wheel. It's the plow that has changed the world.


Colin Tudge is a research fellow of the Centre for Philosophy at the London School of Economics. His recent books include Last Animals at the Zoo, The Engineer in the Garden, The Time Before History, and Neanderthals, Bandits, and Farmers.


Arnold Trehub
Otto von Guericke's Static Electricity Machine

The most important invention in the past two thousand years must be a seminal invention with the broadest and most significant consequences. In my opinion, it is the invention by Otto von Guericke in 1660 of a machine that produced static electricity. Although electrical and magnetic phenomena were noted and commented on many centuries earlier, von Guericke's invention was the first machine to produce electricity. This device was the primitive tool that unlocked our understanding and application of electricity. Improvements and elaborations of the von Guericke machine followed fairly rapidly over the next several centuries, contributing to a growing understanding of electricity and its practical utilization. Modern power generation, communication, computation, transportation, and almost all of our most important analytic devices stand on the foundation of von Guericke's machine. At the level of everyday living, it is hard to imagine any of our manufacturing facilities or our households without electricity. 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 at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and the author of The Cognitive Brain.


Alun Anderson
The Caravel

The Portuguese caravel of the early fifteenth century looks at first sight more like a misbegotten hybrid of the sailing ships of two continents than the medieval equivalent of the Apollo space capsule. But Apollo is its closest relative in more ways than one. Apollo changed our world by giving us a moon's-eye view of it. The caravel changed the medieval world far more, as it crept around the shores of Africa, encountered unknown lands, and made way for the Age of Discovery, led by Vasco da Gama and Christopher Columbus. Like the Apollo program, the building and voyages of the caravels were hideously expensive; they eventually drained away to nothing the enormous wealth of their principal backer, Prince Henry of Portugal (Henry the Navigator, 1394-1460). And like Apollo, the early caravels were built as compact as they could be for their immense task of exploration, then every bit as difficult as reaching the moon.

There are no surviving caravels, nor even any detailed plans of them. The Portuguese carpenters who built the caravels were prohibited from explaining how they were constructed or from selling ships to foreigners. But we can get a pretty good idea of how they looked from surviving sketches. The body of the vessel is reminiscent of the small galleons you see in pirate movies for children, minus the rows of guns belowdecks. But the sails are not the square rig you might expect. Instead, they are triangular and hung from a sloping beam, like the rigging of the Arabian dhows that still sail the Indian Ocean, except that the caravel had two, three, and later four masts.

The caravel was indeed a hybrid of European and Arabian influences. With its triangular sails drawn in tight like those of a modern racing yacht, it could sail at an angle close to the wind instead of simply being blown along like the early square-rigger. At best, square-rigged sails of the period could fill only when they were more than 65 degrees off the wind, and square-riggers were condemned either to seek out following winds or forever tack impotently back and forth.

The caravel design was perfected in the early to mid-fifteenth century during a series of voyages financed by Prince Henry. Portugal was then at the far edge of the known world, thousands of miles overland from the wealth of Asia and the spice trade, and Henry's ambition was in part to find a southern route to Asia by going beyond the known limits of the North African coast. (In part, too, Henry may have hoped to find the fabled Christian kingdom of Prester John.) To attempt this mission, not only did the boats have to be improved, but so too did navigation, cartography, astronomy, and the knowledge of winds and tides -- and so they were, in a vastly expensive program centered on the school of navigation that Prince Henry established at Sagres.

The caravels were only some sixty to one hundred feet long. They did not have space for substantial cargo, as trade was not their immediate goal; they were vessels of exploration -- the maritime equivalent of a space probe. They were built with tightly sealed decks and small hatches and coated with pitch to make them as watertight as possible. Later, thanks to the development of strong new ropes and the use of expensive sails of cotton or linen canvas, it was possible to simplify and reduce the rigging. This meant that the crew of each vessel could number as few as twenty-five people, and the length of their voyages without restocking could be extended. The ships were built with shallow drafts. That, in combination with their ability to sail close to the wind and the maneuverability provided by a rudder hung from an axle, made them the best boats to explore the African coast against the prevailing winds.

At the nautical academy Henry founded at Sagres, on the southwestern tip of Portugal, new methods of navigation and ways of using the stars were developed. As the caravels began to make their way south and the northern stars were lost beneath the horizon, navigation methods that read off the height of the polestar on an astrolabe to give latitude could not be used. Instead, tables were developed that enabled the sun to be used as a substitute. But of the greatest importance was that systematic information gathering and mapmaking were begun. The caravels were expected -- and eventually required -- to bring back detailed logs of their voyages, which enabled not only the route around Africa to be mapped but also the pattern of ocean currents.

Even so, the voyages attempted by the Portuguese were daunting. In 1410, nothing was known of Africa south of Cape Bojador (which lies just beyond the modern border of Morocco). From Cape Bojador onward, the shore was barren, backed by the great desert, and the winds and current were unfavorable for a return to Portugal. It was believed that no one who passed the cape would ever return. Henry's first great success was in his expeditions that discovered the islands of Madeira (1419) and the Azores (1431). These offshore islands enabled the crews to find safer routes home from North Africa by swinging out to sea and avoiding unfavorable currents. Even so, it took a further fifteen attempts for the first ships to pass Cape Bojador and move south toward Senegal.

Through these decades, Prince Henry had few supporters for his expensive voyages of exploration. But in 1441, by which time caravel design had advanced rapidly, one of his ships traveled far enough south to make contact with African cultures. The ship returned to Portugal with two Africans. It was the first direct contact by sea between Europe and black Africa and created enormous excitement well beyond the borders of Portugal.

The Age of Discovery began. In 1460 Henry died, with his last expedition having reached Cape Verde, still far short of the point where the African coastline turns east toward modern Nigeria. But before the end of the century Vasco da Gama had rounded southern Africa and reached India. Separate cultures came into contact with one another (sometimes with horrific consequences, as the slave trade took root) and international sea trade began. A turning point in history had been passed, thanks to the tiny, brilliantly engineered caravels and the new skills of navigation and mapmaking.


Alun Anderson is the editor of New Scientist.


Samuel H. Barondes
Organized Science

The great invention of the modern era is 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 communication and criticism -- essential processes that stimulate new ideas, refute the untenable, and provide a system of recognition and reward based on merit and true achievement. Although these organizations are becoming very large and impersonal, necessitating the proliferation of many subdivisions to allow for interactions on a human scale, they remain the essential social structures at the heart of science -- the brilliant invention that makes possible the daily growth of knowledge that so many of us enjoy.


Samuel H. Barondes, M.D., is the Jeanne and Sanford Robertson Professor and director of the Center for Neurobiology and Psychiatry at the University of California at San Francisco, and the author of Molecules and Mental Illness and Mood Genes: Hunting for Origins of Mania and Depression.


John R. Searle
The Green Revolution

If by "invention" we mean 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 two thousand years would be the set of agricultural techniques known collectively as the green revolution. This invention began in the 1960s and continues into the 1990s; indeed, it is now developing into something that may well come to be called the green-blue revolution, which is extending new agricultural techniques to the oceans.

The most important invention of all time occurred with the neolithic revolution, when humanity found ways to grow crops systematically and thus overcame both the instability and the mortal perils of the hunter-gatherer way of life. Hunter-gatherers could neither stay in one place long enough to develop a stable civilization nor 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. The growth of population was constantly threatening to outrun the growth of the 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. Nowadays if you read that there is a famine going on in some part of Africa or Asia, you know that it has been 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 a long time to come.


John R. Searle is Mills Professor of Philosophy of Mind at the University of California at Berkeley. His books include Intentionality: An Essay in the Philosophy of Mind; Minds, Brains, and Science; The Rediscovery of the Mind; The Construction of Social Reality; Mind, Language, and Society; and The Mystery of Consciousness.


Marc D. Hauser
The Electric Light and Aspirin

There is an old joke that goes something like this: A guy is taking a national poll on the most extraordinary invention of all time. During his travels, he finds himself in the Deep South and encounters a distinguished old gentleman rocking in his chair on the front porch of his house. The pollster approaches him and says, "Sir, if you don't mind, I would like to ask you a question for the poll I am conducting. I am interested in finding out what people consider to be the greatest invention of all time. Do you have an opinion on this?"

The old gentleman scratches his head and replies, "Well, I would have to say the thermos."

This baffles the pollster. "Sir, of the millions of responses I have collected, not one person has mentioned the thermos. Would you kindly tell me why that's your choice?"

"That's easy," says the old guy. "You see, the thermos keeps cold things cold and hot things hot. But how does it know?"

OK, I have two suggestions of my own. First, the electric light, born in 1828, about fifty years before Joseph Swan patented the incandescent lamp. Having lived in Africa, where one is often forced to read by firelight, I have found electricity to be a godsend. Moreover, once the incandescent lamp had been invented, it didn't take too long to come up with the flashlight, a handy device for those of us working in dark jungles.

My second suggestion for great inventions is the aspirin, invented in 1853 -- oddly enough, in France. Clearly, other medicines have been around, many of which serve comparable functions, but what a useful little pill for reducing headaches, body aches, and fevers! Among the Masai, headaches are treated with a mud compact of goat feces to the forehead. I prefer aspirin.


Marc D. Hauser, a cognitive neuroscientist, is a professor in the Department of Psychology at Harvard University, where he is a fellow of the Mind, Brain, and Behavior Program; he is also the author of The Evolution of Communication.


John D. Barrow
The Indo-Arab Counting System

The most important invention is the Indo-Arab counting system: 0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, with its positional information content (so that 111 means "one hundred plus one ten plus one unit"), its zero symbol, and the operator property that the addition of a zero to the righthand end of a string multiplies a number by the base value of 10. This system of counting and enumeration is now universal, and it lies at the foundation of all quantitative science, economics, and mathematics.


John D. Barrow is a professor of mathematical sciences and the director of the Millennium Mathematics Project at the University of Cambridge, England. His books include Pi in the Sky; Theories of Everything; The World Within the World; The Anthropic Cosmological Principle (with Frank J. Tipler); The Artful Universe: The Cosmic Source of Human Creativity; Impossibility: The Limits of Science and the Science of Limits; and Between Inner Space and Outer Space.


Leon Lederman
The Printing Press and the Thermos Bottle

If we suggest anything other than the printing press, Brockman will cancel our Christmas bonuses and the New Year's 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?


Richard Potts
Flying Machines

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 the cultural transmission of information. In large perspective, the most important invention of the past two thousand years will likely be something related to computers -- to electronic information being coded and handled outside living bodies. But 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 those that investigate 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, an invention that taps into the center of our mythologies. Prehistoric humans found ways of overcoming fire, water, and earth with the inventions of hearths, boats, and the wheel. The conquest of air did not begin until the twentieth century, with flying machines.

Aircraft have altered our perceptions in ways that were evolutionarily unpredictable. Many inventions change our lives but keep us in the prior range of human possibilities (or human nature). Firearms, as an example, mainly extended existing tendencies to bluff, subjugate, or kill in immediate, face-to-face situations. Aircraft, on the other hand, enabled the delivery of weapons, vastly destructive weapons, on an intercontinental scale -- a 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 timescale of hours.

We now meet other people anywhere in the world in less than a day's travel. Thus things foreign and strange have become familiar. Ancient phobias, ancient biases, have been altered widely. The CNN culture of instantaneous worldwide information is an extension of this, but in my view the actual intermingling of people has been the more important, precedent-shattering development. Civil strife remains the worst where cultural and physical insularity reigns.

Finally, flying machines have meant a global alteration in how we allocate food and other resources. Humans are now bound together in a worldwide economy (resource exchange) driven by our interdependence. Two million years ago, the movement of such resources as food and stone tools was a development with extraordinary implications for human evolution. But even two thousand years ago no one could have foreseen just how far this process of resource exchange has gone today largely because of flying machines.


Richard Potts is the director of the Human Origins Program at the National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution. He is the author of Early Hominid Activities at Olduvai and Humanity's Descent: The Consequences of Ecological Instability.


Paolo Pignatelli
The University

My choice is the university. Knowledge increases through synergy -- through the spreading activation of millions of neurons, families of neurons, and neuron families distributed among thinking individuals. Universities, in bringing individuals with a common intellectual foundation into close enough proximity to allow for rich communication, cause jumps across metaphorical collective neurons -- signals that then propagate through the society of neurons (à la Minsky) and create new knowledge. Universities are about expanding our universe. Had John asked us this question two thousand years ago, my choice would have been the library.


Paolo Pignatelli owns and operates two Internet companies: www.TheCornerStore.com, a software retail company, and ContentPlace.com, a media company.


Douglas Rushkoff
The Eraser

The eraser. As well as the delete key, correction fluid, the constitutional amendment, and all the other tools that let us go back and fix our mistakes.

Without our ability to return, erase, and try again, we would have no scientific model nor any way to evolve government, culture, or ethics. The eraser is our confessor, our absolver, and our time machine.


Douglas Rushkoff is the author of Coercion: Why We Listen to What "They" Say, as well as Cyberia, Media Virus, Playing the Future, The GenX Reader, Stoned Free, and the novel Ecstasy Club. His books have been translated into sixteen languages, and his newspaper column is syndicated by the New York Times. He teaches virtual culture at New York University, delivers commentaries on NPR, and lectures around the world about the impact of media and technology on culture.


Viviana Guzman
Television

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 its inception crime has risen, sex has increased, and the attendance at live performances has declined precipitously.


Viviana Guzman is a flutist and a graduate of the Juilliard School. Her classical album Flute Fantasies features the music of G.P. Telemann. She currently tours worldwide with her own World-Beat music group, heard on her album Planet Flute.


Garniss Curtis
Gutenberg's Press with Movable Type

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, the word designates anything that did not exist previously, whether it be a mechanical device or art, literature, or music. Thus sobered, I reflected again.

In the 1930s, ten eighty-thousand-year-old skulls were found in Skhul Cave, at the foot of Mount Carmel in Israel; in size and shape they closely resemble the skulls of modern Homo sapiens. A similar skull, over ninety thousand years old, was found in a cave at Qafzeh, in Israel. That the braincases of these ancient hominids were the same as ours does not, of course, necessarily mean that their intelligence was the same as ours -- although they were capable of making excellent 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 more than thirty thousand years old. Fifteen thousand years later, in the caves at Le Portel and Lascaux, our ancestors were making magnificent polychrome paintings of animals. Their stone tools, developed some five thousand years earlier, are comparable in technique and beauty to the much more recent tools of pre-Columbian America. Can anyone doubt that these Cro-Magnons, if magically brought into our present-day culture, could have learned to read and write, to philosophize, to do math at a high level, to learn chemistry and physics? (Let's not query those fundamentalists who still don't believe in evolution.)

Cuneiform writing began about five thousand years ago and quickly evolved. Twenty-five hundred years later, the Greeks were producing masterpieces of plays, literature, art, and architecture, and they were doing some wonderful things in mathematics and elementary observational science. The Romans carried on these traditions until Rome fell. Christianity came in and destroyed as much as it could of this great heritage in western Europe, including the great library in Alexandria, and thus began the Dark Ages in Europe. The gradual dissemination of knowledge, other than that contained in Christian literature (which didn't occur 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 hotcakes. Fixed (nonmovable) type had been around for a while, but the process wasn't much faster than copying by hand and was very costly, so the rapid dissemination of knowledge through printed books commenced with Gutenberg.

While the Dark Ages began to end about the year 1000, real progress wasn't made until the Renaissance -- particularly with the proliferation of books via Gutenberg-type presses. As books were published, people became inspired to learn to read. Reading led to thinking about what had been read, to further publication, and to communication between people. The first "World Wide Web" had arrived. Anyone with a grain of sense can see what this has led to!

So, John, after the considerations outlined above, I still think the Gutenberg press with movable type is the greatest invention of the past two thousand years -- or perhaps even of the last five thousand years, after cuneiform writing was invented.

Garniss Curtis is professor emeritus in the Department of Geology and Geophysics at the University of California at Berkeley, and the founder of the Berkeley Geochronology Center. A colleague of Louis Leakey, he determined the age (1.85 million years) of the famous Zinjanthropus fossil, a finding that rocked the anthropological world. His research in this field continues, and in 1994, with his colleague Carl Swisher, he redated Homo erectus in Java at 1.8 million years instead of the long-held eight hundred thousand years.

Copyright © 2000 by John Brockman

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 2, 2007

    the greatsest inventions of the past 2,000 years

    This book is asking for people to explain what they think is the greatest invention on the last 2,000 years. They asked many people who deal with science and the environment everyday to tell what they though was the greatest invention. A few times the invention of the contraceptive pill, the computer, the printing press and many more that were though by many to be one of the greatest inventions. The question was put out by John Brockman who edited the book he wanted to find out what other people thought of as ¿great¿ inventions. Along with inventions there were also concepts and ideas listed in this book. People came up with stuff like the probability theory and the idea of an idea. There was a wide diversity between what people thought of as great inventions, for example the atomic bomb then there was others who nominated hay. As you can see from reading this book what your idea of a ¿great¿ invention is all depends on how you live and where you live. But still the question wanted to find out what people thought most carved how we live today.

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