I'm a scientist and writer.
I think about the future of knowledge in our age of scientific and technological change and what that means for society. I’m currently Scientist in Residence at Lux Capital, a venture capital firm focused on startups at the frontier of science and technology. I am obsessed with promoting generalist thinking in our age of specialization, seeing our most hopeful future in the unexpected collisions between disparate ideas.
I’m the author of Overcomplicated: Technology at the Limits of Comprehension and The Half-Life of Facts.
In my spare time, I build tools for creative thought and serendipity, such as Blink Microscope.
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Samuel Arbesman is a complexity scientist, whose work focuses on the nature of scientific and technological change. He is currently Scientist in Residence at Lux Capital, a venture capital firm investing in emerging science and technology ventures. He is also a Senior Fellow of the Silicon Flatirons Center for Law, Technology, and Entrepreneurship at the University of Colorado Boulder and Research Fellow at the Long Now Foundation.
Arbesman’s training is in complexity science, computational biology, and applied mathematics. His scientific research has been cited widely and has appeared in numerous peer-reviewed journals including the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. His essays about science, mathematics, and technology have appeared in such places as the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and Wired, where he was previously a contributing writer, and he has been featured in The Best Writing on Mathematics 2010. Arbesman is the author of two award-winning books, Overcomplicated: Technology at the Limits of Comprehension (Current/Penguin, 2016) and The Half-Life of Facts (Current/Penguin, 2012).
Previously, Arbesman was a Senior Scholar at the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation and a Research Fellow in the Department of Health Care Policy at Harvard Medical School. He completed a PhD in computational biology at Cornell University in 2008, and earned a BA in computer science and biology at Brandeis University in 2004.
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Overcomplicated: Technology at the Limits of Comprehension
A QI Book of the Year and Scientific American Recommended Book
Why did the New York Stock Exchange suspend trading without warning on July 8, 2015? Why did certain Toyota vehicles accelerate uncontrollably against the will of their drivers? Why does the programming inside our airplanes occasionally surprise its creators?
After a thorough analysis by the top experts, the answers still elude us.
You don’t understand the software running your car or your iPhone. But here’s a secret: neither do the geniuses at Apple or the Ph.D.’s at Toyota—not perfectly, anyway. No one, not lawyers, doctors, accountants, or policy makers, fully grasps the rules governing your tax return, your retirement account, or your hospital’s medical machinery. The same technological advances that have simplified our lives have made the systems governing our lives incomprehensible, unpredictable, and overcomplicated.
In Overcomplicated, complexity scientist Samuel Arbesman offers a fresh, insightful field guide to living with complex technologies that defy human comprehension. As technology grows more complex, Arbesman argues, its behavior mimics the vagaries of the natural world more than it conforms to a mathematical model. If we are to survive and thrive in this new age, we must abandon our need for governing principles and rules and accept the chaos. By embracing and observing the freak accidents and flukes that disrupt our lives, we can gain valuable clues about how our algorithms really work. What’s more, we will become better thinkers, scientists, and innovators as a result.
Lucid and energizing, this book is a vital new analysis of the world heralded as “modern” for anyone who wants to live wisely.
Vox said that "It presents a new way to think about the world that makes seemingly impossible problems approachable" and Clive Thompson, author of Smarter Than You Think, said this:
How do we navigate a digital world too complex for any individual to understand? With a sense of wonder and the spirit of a scientist, as Samuel Arbesman argues in this terrific and thoughtful book.
Buy Overcomplicated (and see more nice things people have said about it)
The Half-Life of Facts: Why Everything We Know Has an Expiration Date
Winner of the 2013 Thorpe Menn Literary Excellence Award and a Scientific American Recommended Book
Facts change all the time. Smoking has gone from doctor-recommended to deadly. We used to think the Earth was the center of the universe and that Pluto was a planet. For decades, we were convinced that the Brontosaurus was a real dinosaur. In short, what we know about the world is constantly changing.
But it turns out there’s an order to the state of knowledge, an explanation for how we know what we know. Samuel Arbesman is an expert in the field of scientometrics—literally the science of science. Knowledge in most fields evolves systematically and predictably, and this evolution unfolds in a fascinating way that can have a powerful impact on our lives.
The Half-Life of Facts is a riveting journey into the counterintuitive fabric of knowledge. It can help us find new ways to measure the world while accepting the limits of how much we can know with certainty.
The Wall Street Journal called it "Delightfully nerdy," Bloomberg said that it was "easily one of the best books of the year on science," and Tyler Cowen, of Marginal Revolution, said this:
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.
Buy The Half-Life of Facts (and see more nice things people have said about it)
• Constant Decay: A Short Story
• The Human Body Is Too Complex for Easy Fixes The Atlantic
• Lessons About the iPhone, Courtesy of a Depression-Era Children’s Book The Atlantic
• What scientific term or concept should be more widely known? Quines Edge.org
• The Coming Human-Machine Partnership in Creativity Medium
• Why Technologists Should Think Like Biologists Harvard Business Review
• What Kind of Sorcery Is This? Why code is so often compared to magic. The Atlantic
• The Problem with Technological Ignorance Slate
• Get under the hood: Computers are so easy that we’ve forgotten how to create Aeon Magazine
• Why Our Genome and Technology Are Both Riddled With “Crawling Horrors” Nautilus
• It’s complicated: Human ingenuity has created a world that the mind cannot master. Have we finally reached our limits? Aeon Magazine
• Let’s Bring The Polymath–and the Dabblers–Back Wired Opinion
• Explain It to Me Again, Computer: What if technology makes scientific discoveries that we can’t understand? Slate
• Math as Myth Nautilus
• Stop Hyping Big Data and Start Paying Attention to ‘Long Data’ Wired Opinion
Affiliations (Partial List)
• Scientist in Residence, Lux Capital
• Senior Fellow, Silicon Flatirons Center for Law, Technology, and Entrepreneurship at the University of Colorado Boulder
• Research Fellow, Long Now Foundation
• Mentor, Techstars
• Advisory Board, Media Archaeology Lab at the University of Colorado Boulder
My Erdos number is 4, due to my coauthorship with Jon Kleinberg, and my Bacon number is 1, due to my appearance as an extra in the documentary Connected: The Power of Six Degrees, which features Kevin Bacon.
This means my Erdos-Bacon number is 5, one of the lower such numbers in the world of science.
On the side, I have coined a new word, named an asteroid, and created an eponymous constant. I am also responsible for the Milky Way Transit Authority subway map.
I’m a product of HyperCard, Martin Gardner, science fiction, and LEGO.
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