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Half Life Chapter 1

Half Life Chapter 1

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Published by Dwayne Reid

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Published by: Dwayne Reid on Apr 02, 2013
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The Half-life of Facts
my grandfather was in dental school in the late 1930s, hewas taught state-of-the-art medical knowledge. He learned allabout anatomy, many aspects of biochemistry, and cell biology.He was also taught the number of chromosomes in a humancell. The problem was, he learned that it was forty-eight. Biologistshad first visualized the nuclei of human cells in 1912 and countedthese forty-eight chromosomes, and it was duly entered into thetextbooks. In 1953, a well-known cytologist—someone who stud-ies the interior of cells—even said that “the diploid chromosomenumber of 48 in man can now be considered as an establishedfact.”But in 1956, Joe Hin Tjio and Albert Levan, two researchersworking at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New Yorkand the Cancer Chromosome Laboratory in Sweden, decided to trya recently created technique for looking at cells. After countingover and over, they nearly always got only forty-six chromosomes.Previous researchers, who Tjio and Levan spoke with after receiv-ing their results, turned out to have been having similar problems.These other scientists had even stopped some of their work prema-turely, because they could only find forty-six out of the forty-eightchromosomes that they knew had to be there. But Tjio and Levandidn’t make the same assumption. Instead, they made the bold
suggestion that everyone else had been using the wrong number:There are only forty-six chromosomes in a human cell.Facts change all the time. Smoking has gone from doctor rec-ommended to deadly. Meat used to be good for you, then bad toeat, then good again; now it’s a matter of opinion. The age at whichwomen are told to get mammograms has increased. We used tothink that the Earth was the center of the universe, and our planethas since been demoted. I have no idea any longer whether or notred wine is good for me. And to take another familial example, myfather, a dermatologist, told me about a multiple-choice exam hetook in medical school that included the same question two yearsin a row. The answer choices remained exactly the same, but oneyear the answer was one choice and the next year it was a differ-ent one.Other types of facts, ones about our surroundings, also change.The average Internet connection is far faster now than it was tenyears ago. The language of science has gone from Latin to Germanto English and is certain to change again. Humanity has progressedfrom a population of less than two billion to over seven billion peo-ple in the past hundred years alone. We have gone from beingEarth-bound to having had humans walk on the Moon, and wehave sent our artifacts beyond the boundaries of our solar system.Chess, checkers, and even
have gone from being the do-mains of human experts to ones of computerized mastery.Our world seems to be in constant flux. With our knowledgechanging all the time, even the most informed people can barelykeep up. All this change may seem random and overwhelming (Di-nosaurs have feathers? When did that happen?), but it turns outthere is actually order within the shifting noise. This order is regu-lar and systematic and is one that can be described by science andmathematics.Knowledge is like radioactivity. If you look at a single atomof uranium, whether or not it’s going to decay—breaking downand unleashing its energy—is highly unpredictable. It might decayin the next second, or you might have to sit and stare at it for
The Half-life of Facts
thousands, or perhaps even millions, of years before it breaksapart.But when you take a chunk of uranium, itself made up of tril-lions upon trillions of atoms, suddenly the unpredictable becomespredictable. We know how uranium atoms work in the aggregate.As a group of atoms, uranium is highly regular. When we combineparticles together, a rule of probability known as the law of largenumbers takes over, and even the behavior of a tiny piece of ura-nium becomes understandable. If we are patient enough, half of achunk of uranium will break down in 704 million years, like clock-work. This number—704 million years—is a measurable amountof time, and it is known as the half-life of uranium.It turns out that facts, when viewed as a large body of knowl-edge, are just as predictable. Facts, in the aggregate, have half-lives:We can measure the amount of time for half of a subject’s knowl-edge to be overturned. There is science that explores the rates atwhich new facts are created, new technologies are developed, andeven how facts spread. How knowledge changes can be understoodscientifically.This is a powerful idea. We don’t have to be at sea in a worldof changing knowledge. Instead, we can understand how factsgrow and change in the aggregate, just like radioactive materials.This book is a guide to the startling notion that our knowledge—even what each of us has in our headschanges in understandableand systematic ways.
exactly is knowing how knowledge changes actually useful?You may find it interesting to discover that the dinosaurs of ouryouth—slow, reptilian, and gray-green—are now fast moving, cov- ered in feathers, and the colors of the NBC peacock. But if youdon’t have a six-year-old at home, this is probably not going to af-fect your life in any significant way.I could tell you that certain areas of medical knowledge have achurn of less than half a century—well within a single life

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