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The Half-Life of Facts

Why Everything We Know Has an Expiration Date

By Samuel Arbesman
15-minute read
The Half-Life of Facts: Why Everything We Know Has an Expiration Date by Samuel Arbesman

As we continue to accumulate knowledge, we begin to realize how often old ideas are overturned due to new facts that contradict them. The Half-Life of Facts explores patterns in the way knowledge is created, and permeates our world and our personal lives. The book also gives some helpful on how to deal with our ever-changing world and regain a sense of control.

  • Anyone who feels the world is changing too fast
  • Anyone interested in understanding scientific and technological developments
  • Anyone who’s completely sure of one particular fact about the world

Samuel Arbesman is a scientist in the field of applied mathematics and a fellow at the Institute of Social Sciences at Harvard University. He also has a blog on Wired, and his essays have been printed in popular newspapers such as The New York Times or The Wall Street Journal.

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The Half-Life of Facts

Why Everything We Know Has an Expiration Date

By Samuel Arbesman
  • Read in 15 minutes
  • Contains 9 key ideas
The Half-Life of Facts: Why Everything We Know Has an Expiration Date by Samuel Arbesman
Synopsis

As we continue to accumulate knowledge, we begin to realize how often old ideas are overturned due to new facts that contradict them. The Half-Life of Facts explores patterns in the way knowledge is created, and permeates our world and our personal lives. The book also gives some helpful on how to deal with our ever-changing world and regain a sense of control.

Key idea 1 of 9

We can use mathematical models to track and measure how knowledge grows and develops.

What do you have to do to become a doctor? One major prerequisite is to spend many years in medical school gathering all the vital knowledge you need to diagnose and treat patients.

Yet even after all that training, there’s still be more to learn because the field of medical science is continuously evolving; as new discoveries are made, old ideas fall out of use. Thus, doctors must continue learning all the time if they’re to keep up.

Indeed, humanity continually advances its knowledge in many other fields as well. In order to track these developments, we use something called scientometrics, i.e., the “science of science.” Using the power of modern computers, scientometrics creates complex mathematical models to scour for patterns in the accumulation and evolution of knowledge.

As we’ll see, it’s found some interest things...

Much like the half-life of radioactive materials that describes the time it takes for half the material to “die,” knowledge, too, has a half-life. In every academic field, you can measure the time it will take for half of the accepted facts to be overturned by new knowledge. In other words, it turns out you can measure the half-life of facts.

For example, in physics, half of today’s new academic books will have to be rewritten in 13 years; in history, within a mere seven years!

In addition, scientometrics helps us measure how quickly knowledge grows. For instance, after tracking the changes in medical science over time, we can project that the amount of major contributions, such as new findings, methods and ideas, will double every 87 years. In the field of chemistry, this takes only 35 years.

We can learn quite a bit by using scientometrics to look for patterns in the development of knowledge. In fact, the simple awareness that knowledge will change over time can encourage us to stay open to revisions to our worldview.

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