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The Half-life of Facts: Why Everything We Know Has an Expiration Date 1st Edition

3.9 out of 5 stars 69 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-1591844723
ISBN-10: 159184472X
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Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

There are facts, and then there are facts. We expect some facts to be fluid—the population of Earth, for example—but, as it turns out, we probably shouldn’t expect anything we know to remain static. Things that feel like unalterable truths, like the number of chromosomes in human cells (which was 48, until somebody noticed it wasn’t), can suddenly shift. The author, an applied mathematician, explores the nature of knowledge: why it changes, how it changes, and why this is so vital for scientific exploration. Knowledge, like life itself, evolves; science regularly revises its truths to include new discoveries. The book is also a history of a field many readers might never have heard of: scientometrics, “the science of science,” a way of quantifying the growth of ideas. The author shows, too, how the principles of scientometrics can be applied to other fields, examination of various surviving copies of Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, for instance, allowing researchers to track back to Chaucer’s own original version. Fascinating, engagingly written, and just mind-bending enough to spur readers to revisit their own mental catalogs of knowledge. --David Pitt


"Delightfully nerdy."
—David A. Shaywitz, The Wall Street Journal

The Half-Life of Facts is easily one of the best books of the year on science. It would be a lovely irony were it to prove one of the best books on politics, too.”
—Stephen L. Carter, Bloomberg

“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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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Current; 1st edition (September 27, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 159184472X
  • ISBN-13: 978-1591844723
  • Product Dimensions: 9.1 x 5.9 x 1.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 15.2 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (69 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #441,473 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

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By Johan U. on October 11, 2012
Format: Hardcover
This is a review intended for the experienced popular science reader. As someone who is fairly widely read in the popular science literature, I found this book to be refreshing. Let me explain. A problem I've had with many popular science books is that they tend to all repeat the tired "greatest hits" of science and math stories, even if they're only ever so slightly related, in a manner that makes them tired. For example, when Graph Theory 1736-1936 brings up the 'Seven Bridges of Königsberg', this is relevant; when Fermat's Enigma brings it up, Singh is stretching the connection simply because it's a good story. But for frequent readers of popular science writing, it feels more like a disservice. For the well read fan of popular science, the seven bridges, the Monty Hall problem, and the birthday paradox are well known.

And so, I was delighted to find Arbesman's book genuinely refreshing. He omits any discussion of Königsberg and the birthday paradox, which would have been off topic, and instead contributes a genuine thesis about the 'science of science' that is delightfully fresh. Many of his vignettes were entirely new to me: the coPub approach to discovering links between disparate domains of science, his review of Galton's more esoteric studies (apparently Galton was an early Scientometrician, the book discusses several great studies I'd never heard of), and the 'Bone Wars' that have shaped the public knowledge of dinosaurs.
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Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
This is a book on a very interesting subject that mostly irritated me in the end.

I think the biggest issue I had with it was the very myopic view applied to the topics. And the fact that I think that Mr Arbesman really makes too much of the methods he relies on to tell a story. Basically the book relies on the idea that you can graph anything that you can put a number on, and then using math that is complicated compared to, say what you learn in high school, you can fit a line to any graph and a lot of times that line is a particular family of curves. He makes it sound very magical but its not really - sometimes the fit is great and you can learn a lot from it but you can do this, like I said for anything. It doesn't per se, mean anything major. It isn't really even uncovering any secrets of how things are organized in nature or the world - we're fitting the lines after all.

Plus, when he talks about science he seems to ignore lots of factors that would make his "story" messier or just different. He talks a lot about citations of research papers but without seemingly understanding how people actually function in science. Finally, at the end, he has a chapter that promises to discuss the "human" aspects of knowledge generation but he doesn't really do that there either. What I mean is, he attributes the fact that few references in papers appear to have been actually read by the authors to laziness and doesn't talk at all about how social networks among scientists influence choice of citations (i.e. I cite what my boss cites, or even better, what he wrote) despite have a whole chapter on the social movement of information just earlier in the book! Lame, I say!
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Format: Hardcover
After I saw Samuel Arbesman speak at Tedx Kansas City a few weeks ago, I knew I had to read his book. The premise of his talk and his book is that facts are not really information set in stone, the way we usually think about them. The world is constantly changing and nothing is for certain forever. I was floored by the notion that what my kids are learning in school may contradict what I learned in school. For some reason, that notion had never occurred to me!

The Half-Life of Facts is easily understood by a lay person. I found it very readable and I don't have a head for science at all. Each chapter outlines a different reason why facts may either change or be found to be untrue. Arbesman uses examples throughout, all of which I found fascinating. I would love to read even more stories about which facts have changed over time and why.

I was surprised by some of the facts that are no longer true. For instance, did you know that there really isn't a dinosaur called a Brontosaurus? I had no idea and both of my boys have been through dinosaur obsessions within the past few years. The Brontosaurus was found to be a type of Apatosaurus over a hundred years ago. However, once something is out in the ether, it's really hard to circulate information modifying or correcting the original assertion.

I appreciated that not only does Arbesman discuss the various ways in which untruths persist and facts change over time, he also offers suggestions of how to keep current without getting information overload.

I love that in keeping with the spirit of The Half-Life of Facts, Arbesman's website has a Errata and Updates section for the book.
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