The Half-Life of Facts: Why Everything We Know Has an Expiration Date

The Half-Life of Facts: Why Everything We Know Has an Expiration Date

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by Samuel Arbesman
     
 

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New insights from the science of science
 
Facts change all the time. Smoking has gone from doctor recommended to deadly. We used to think the Earth was the center of the universe and that the brontosaurus was a real dinosaur. In short, what we know about the world is constantly changing.
 
Samuel Arbesman shows us how knowledge in mostSee more details below

Overview

New insights from the science of science
 
Facts change all the time. Smoking has gone from doctor recommended to deadly. We used to think the Earth was the center of the universe and that the brontosaurus was a real dinosaur. In short, what we know about the world is constantly changing.
 
Samuel Arbesman shows us how knowledge in most fields evolves systematically and predictably, and how this evolution unfolds in a fascinating way that can have a powerful impact on our lives.
 
He takes us through a wide variety of fields, including those that change quickly, over the course of a few years, or over the span of centuries.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“The Half-Life of Facts is easily one of the best books of the year on science.”
—Bloomberg
 
“Delightfully nerdy.”
—The Wall Street Journal

"Absorbing and approachable treatise on the nature of facts: what they are, how and why they change and how they sometimes don’t (despite being wrong)…Facts matter. But when they change—as they seem today to do with alarming frequency, we begin to lose that control. In his debut, Arbesman…advises us not to worry: While we can’t stop facts from changing, we can recognize that what we know “changes in understandable and systematic ways.”… With this, he introduces “scientometrics,” the science of science. With scientometrics, we can measure the exponential growth of facts, how long it will take, exponentially, for knowledge in any field to be disproved—say, 45 years for medical knowledge…like a good college professor, Arbesman’s enthusiasm and humor maintains our interest in subjects many readers may not have encountered before…[The Half-Life of Facts] does what popular science should do—both engages and entertains."
Kirkus Reviews

“How many chromosomes do we have? How high is Mount Everest? Is spinach as good for you as Popeye thought—and what scientific blunder led him to think so in the first place?The Half-life of Facts is fun and fascinating, filled with wide-ranging stories and subtle insights about how facts are born, dance their dance, and die. In today’s world, where knowledge often changes faster than we do, Samuel Arbesman’s new book is essential reading.”
—Steven Strogatz, professor of mathematics, Cornell University, and author of The Joy of X
 
“What does it mean to live in a world drowning in facts? Consider The Half-life of Facts the new go-to book on the evolution of science and technology.”
—Tyler Cowen, professor of economics, George Mason University, and author of An Economist Gets Lunch
 
The Half-life of Facts is a rollicking intellectual journey. Samuel Arbesman shares his extensive knowledge with infectious enthusiasm and entertaining prose. Even if the facts around us are ever changing, the lessons and fun in this book will have a very long half-life!”
—Michael J. Mauboussin, chief investment strategist, Legg Mason Capital Management, and author of The Success Equation
 
The Half-life of Facts teaches you that it is possible, in fact, to drink from a fire­hose. Samuel Arbesman, an extremely creative scientist and storyteller, explores the paradox that knowledge is tentative in particularly consistent ways. In his ca­pable hands, we learn about everything from how medieval manuscripts resemble genetic code to what bacteria and computer chips have in common. This book un­ravels the mystery of how we come to know the truth—and how long we can be certain about it.”
—Nicholas A. Christakis, MD, PhD, coauthor of Connected

"Facts fall apart, some famously so. Brontosaurus is not a real dinosaur species; Pluto is not a planet. When you look at them en masse, patterns emerge: Facts die, and are born, at specific, predictable rates. These rates are the subject of applied mathematician Samuel Arbesman’s engaging, insightful jaunt across the backstage of scientific knowledge. Packed with interesting tidbits—for instance, more than a third of mammals thought to have gone extinct in the last 500 years have since reappeared—the book explains how facts spread and change over time. It also explores how today’s data-soaked reality has yielded high-throughput, automated ways to produce new truths, like algorithms that discover connections between genes and disease."
—Veronique Greenwood, Discover magazine

"Knowledge shifts over time, explains Sam Arbesman in The Half-Life of Facts, and it does so in predictable ways. The book takes us on a whirlwind tour of emerging fields of scientometrics, and undertakes a broader exploration of metaknowledge. Arbesman details how researchers beginning to focus the big-data lens back on science itself are uncovering quantitative laws and regulari­ties in the way that scientific knowledge is constructed and modified over time….Arbesman is a delight­ful guide to the territory, patently in love with this emerging field. He is also a skilled storyteller, and his wide-eyed reporting invigorates material that could have been dry and academic."
—Carl Bergstrom, Nature magazine

Kirkus Reviews
Absorbing and approachable treatise on the nature of facts: what they are, how and why they change and how they sometimes don't (despite being wrong). Facts matter. But when they change--as they seem today to do with alarming frequency, we begin to lose that control. In his debut, Arbesman, a research fellow at the Institute for Quantitative Social Science at Harvard, advises us not to worry: While we can't stop facts from changing, we can recognize that what we know "changes in understandable and systematic ways." Since it is often surprisingly predictable, we can get a handle on change. "Facts, in the aggregate," he writes, "have half-lives: We can measure the amount of time for half of a subject's knowledge to be overturned." With this, he introduces "scientometrics," the science of science. With scientometrics, we can measure the exponential growth of facts, how long it will take, exponentially, for knowledge in any field to be disproved--say, 45 years for medical knowledge. We can understand predictably how the spread of knowledge (even incorrect knowledge) occurs, and we can understand that those abrupt disconcerting changes that seem to stand the world on its head aren't really all that surprising. Some readers may lose interest as Arbesman discusses such esoteric topics as logistic curves, linked S-curve theory, semantic and associative data processing and actuarial escape velocity. But like a good college professor, Arbesman's enthusiasm and humor maintains our interest in subjects many readers may not have encountered before. Does what popular science should do--both engages and entertains.

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9781101595299
Publisher:
Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date:
09/27/2012
Sold by:
Penguin Group
Format:
NOOK Book
Pages:
256
Sales rank:
583,992
File size:
2 MB
Age Range:
18 Years

What People are saying about this

From the Publisher

“The Half-Life of Facts is easily one of the best books of the year on science.”
—Bloomberg
 
“Delightfully nerdy.”
—The Wall Street Journal

"Absorbing and approachable treatise on the nature of facts: what they are, how and why they change and how they sometimes don’t (despite being wrong)…Facts matter. But when they change—as they seem today to do with alarming frequency, we begin to lose that control. In his debut, Arbesman…advises us not to worry: While we can’t stop facts from changing, we can recognize that what we know “changes in understandable and systematic ways.”… With this, he introduces “scientometrics,” the science of science. With scientometrics, we can measure the exponential growth of facts, how long it will take, exponentially, for knowledge in any field to be disproved—say, 45 years for medical knowledge…like a good college professor, Arbesman’s enthusiasm and humor maintains our interest in subjects many readers may not have encountered before…[The Half-Life of Facts] does what popular science should do—both engages and entertains."
Kirkus Reviews

“How many chromosomes do we have? How high is Mount Everest? Is spinach as good for you as Popeye thought—and what scientific blunder led him to think so in the first place?The Half-life of Facts is fun and fascinating, filled with wide-ranging stories and subtle insights about how facts are born, dance their dance, and die. In today’s world, where knowledge often changes faster than we do, Samuel Arbesman’s new book is essential reading.”
—Steven Strogatz, professor of mathematics, Cornell University, and author of The Joy of X
 
“What does it mean to live in a world drowning in facts? Consider The Half-life of Facts the new go-to book on the evolution of science and technology.”
—Tyler Cowen, professor of economics, George Mason University, and author of An Economist Gets Lunch
 
The Half-life of Facts is a rollicking intellectual journey. Samuel Arbesman shares his extensive knowledge with infectious enthusiasm and entertaining prose. Even if the facts around us are ever changing, the lessons and fun in this book will have a very long half-life!”
—Michael J. Mauboussin, chief investment strategist, Legg Mason Capital Management, and author of The Success Equation
 
The Half-life of Facts teaches you that it is possible, in fact, to drink from a fire­hose. Samuel Arbesman, an extremely creative scientist and storyteller, explores the paradox that knowledge is tentative in particularly consistent ways. In his ca­pable hands, we learn about everything from how medieval manuscripts resemble genetic code to what bacteria and computer chips have in common. This book un­ravels the mystery of how we come to know the truth—and how long we can be certain about it.”
—Nicholas A. Christakis, MD, PhD, coauthor of Connected

"Facts fall apart, some famously so. Brontosaurus is not a real dinosaur species; Pluto is not a planet. When you look at them en masse, patterns emerge: Facts die, and are born, at specific, predictable rates. These rates are the subject of applied mathematician Samuel Arbesman’s engaging, insightful jaunt across the backstage of scientific knowledge. Packed with interesting tidbits—for instance, more than a third of mammals thought to have gone extinct in the last 500 years have since reappeared—the book explains how facts spread and change over time. It also explores how today’s data-soaked reality has yielded high-throughput, automated ways to produce new truths, like algorithms that discover connections between genes and disease."
—Veronique Greenwood, Discover magazine

"Knowledge shifts over time, explains Sam Arbesman in The Half-Life of Facts, and it does so in predictable ways. The book takes us on a whirlwind tour of emerging fields of scientometrics, and undertakes a broader exploration of metaknowledge. Arbesman details how researchers beginning to focus the big-data lens back on science itself are uncovering quantitative laws and regulari­ties in the way that scientific knowledge is constructed and modified over time….Arbesman is a delight­ful guide to the territory, patently in love with this emerging field. He is also a skilled storyteller, and his wide-eyed reporting invigorates material that could have been dry and academic."
Carl Bergstrom, Nature magazine

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