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

4.0 out of 5 stars 93 ratings
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

Review

"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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Reviewed in the United States on December 26, 2012
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Reviewed in the United States on December 12, 2012
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Reviewed in the United States on May 11, 2013
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Top international reviews

Dr Mike Sutton
5.0 out of 5 stars A new kind of science book for the Information Age
Reviewed in the United Kingdom on October 13, 2013
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r
5.0 out of 5 stars Most of us have a tendency to forget that facts ...
Reviewed in the United Kingdom on January 4, 2018
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H.M
5.0 out of 5 stars excellent book.
Reviewed in the United Kingdom on April 27, 2017
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Stanley K. Scott
5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars
Reviewed in the United Kingdom on October 30, 2014
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5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars
Reviewed in the United Kingdom on February 27, 2015
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Brant
5.0 out of 5 stars Half Life of Facts
Reviewed in Canada on May 21, 2013
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Alok Pandey
2.0 out of 5 stars Unsatisfactory print quality
Reviewed in India on May 1, 2019
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sreenath
5.0 out of 5 stars Good
Reviewed in India on December 25, 2018
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KosH
4.0 out of 5 stars 「事実」を疑え!
Reviewed in Japan on October 27, 2012
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4.0 out of 5 stars Four Stars
Reviewed in the United Kingdom on February 7, 2015
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Always Gomes
3.0 out of 5 stars Better books out there
Reviewed in Canada on December 18, 2015
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