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 heads—changes 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