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Book Review: "This Will Make You Smarter" Takes Your Mind To Extraordinary Places

Kunal Bambawale |
March 21, 2012 | 9:09 p.m. PDT

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John Brockman brings the reader some wisdom in "This Will Make You Smarter" (Harper Collins)
John Brockman brings the reader some wisdom in "This Will Make You Smarter" (Harper Collins)
The first time you pick up "This Will Make You Smarter," you might be put off by the brash title and ostentatious red cover.

The premise of the whole thing just feels a bit too presumptuous. The book will make you smarter? Just by reading it? Really? You're just supposed to absorb the knowledge, through some sort of mental osmosis? Will completing the book transform you into some sort of enlightened being?

"This Will Make You Smarter." That's one hell of a guarantee.

But if you were put off by "This Will Make You Smarter's" audaciousness, then you'd be falling prey to exactly the kind of poor thinking the book aims to correct. You'd be judging it by its cover.

And that is a problem.

Because "This Will Make You Smarter" might just be the most brilliantly, profoundly, intellectually challenging book you'll ever read. It takes your mind to some extraordinary places, challenging your imagination with ideas that can and will take your breath away.

The book comprises a series of essays by some of the world's greatest scientists, philosophers and playwrights, all of whom are directly answering one simple question: "What scientific concept would improve everybody's cognitive toolkit?"

Their answers come from the cutting edge of psychology, philosophy, economics, physics, sociology, biology and many more fields too complicated to mention here. These are people who live at the outermost frontiers of human knowledge -- thinkers who spend their lives using what we do know to discover what we don't. Their words are inspiring, comforting and occasionally alarming. Their wisdom is great. But their tone is never arrogant or elitist.

The book was edited by John Brockman, author and founder of Edge -- an organization which aims "to arrive at the edge of the world's knowledge, seek out the most complex and sophisticated minds, put them in a room together, and have them ask each other the questions they are asking themselves." He should be commended for managing to make intellectual prowess accessible to all.

Academia's ivory towers can be daunting, but what "This Will Make You Smarter" shows us is that the minds that inhabit them are not egotistic or self-important. These minds are as humble as they are nimble. They are generous but refreshingly frank. These minds search for answers about our universe -- answers that one day might benefit us all.

Writing a review about the ideas of such impressive people is intimidating. The words on the pages of "This Will Make You Smarter" carry much more authority than the words on this screen, but if you've gleaned anything from reading this, it's that this is a genuinely important book. If your mind is a curious one, if you've ever wondered about the nature of our universe, our existence, or our collective and individual selves, than you should read it. It's just that good.

Our world is one cleaved by conflict and paralyzed by politics. It is full of suffering -- suffering that isn't necessarily avoidable, but might be addressed better if we approached society's problems with scientific rigor instead of irrational dogmatism and ideological grandstanding. The stories told by our popular media frequently portray our species as violent, ignorant and ugly. "This Will Make You Smarter" shows us that we humans can also be beautifully, divinely wise. Because despite what the world's dominant religions might tell you, empirically speaking, we are all just collections of atoms that just happened to have gained self-consciousness.

All of the thinkers featured in "This Will Make You Smarter" wrote their essays individually. Remarkably, Brockman has managed to arrange them in such a way that a narrative of sorts appears. This is very much a story -- the story of the human condition, told from the scientific perspective. By the time you've finished This Will Make You Smarter, you won't view it as an ostentatious red book. You'll view it as an old friend.

And you will be smarter, whether you like it or not.

 

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