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2011, The Year in Ideas

We survey the groundbreaking ideas of 2011 from experts such as Daniel Kahneman, Ray Kurzweil, Peter Diamandis, Sal Khan, Daniel Burrus, Michio Kaku, Steven Pinker and many others. 

What’s the Big Idea?

Was 2011 a good year for ideas? In other words, did mankind advance knowledge through scientific discoveries or other breakthroughs in thinking in the past 12 months? This is a question we are obsessed with at Big Think. While the answer may be nearly impossible to quantify, we have compiled a concise survey below of the most significant and relevant ideas that rose to light on Big Think in 2011. Please feel free to offer your suggestions in the comment thread below.


One of the most alarming milestones this year was the human population hitting 7 billion. The current rate of human population growth, which Harvard biologist E. O. Wilson called “more bacterial than primate,” will put us over 9 billion by 2050.

How many people can the Earth sustain? It depends who you ask, but even the most optimistic scientists have stated that we are well past the point where we can sustain our current levels of consumption, especially if everyone on the planet consumed like North Americans. We would need perhaps 4 Earths to support that kind of consumption of resources. For anyone interested in learning more about this challenge, watch this excerpt from Great Big Ideas, a new online course offered by The Floating University, multiple-award-winning mathematical biologist Joel Cohen explains that population interacts with environment, economics, and culture to shape our world. 

So what’s the solution? One of the books we are most looking forward to in the New Year is Abundance(due out in February, 2012) by Peter Diamandis and Steven Kotler, which takes the contrarian view that “we will soon be able to meet and exceed the basic needs of every man, woman and child on the planet,” the authors write. “Abundance for all is within our grasp.” When seen through the lens of technology, “few resources are truly scarce; they’re mainly inaccessible. Yet the threat of scarcity still dominates our worldview.” Stay tuned to Big Think to learn more about this in the New Year. 


In 2011, we finally came to grasp the awesome potential of solar power, and to put this potential in its proper context. While solar accounts for less than 1 percent of the world’s energy needs, according to Ray Kurzweil, “driven by exponentially-increasing nanotechnology, solar will satisfy the entire world’s energy needs in 16 years.”


The First Trillionaires Will Make Their Fortunes in Space” was one of my favorite headlines of 2011, and the idea comes from, once again, space enthusiast and X Prize founder Peter Diamandis. 

Twenty trillion USD is the estimated market value of a relatively small metallic asteroid that was first calculated by John S. Lewis in his bookMining The Sky: Untold Riches from the Asteroids, Comets, and PlanetsLewis argued that “using presently available or readily foreseeable technologies, we can relieve Earth of its energy problem, make astronomical amounts of raw materials available, and raise the living standard of people worldwide.” Diamandis notes that everything we hold of value, “the things we fight wars over,” such as metals, minerals and real estate, exist “in infinite quantities in space.” 

While NASA’s space shuttle era drew to a close this year, the incentives are there for private companies and private teams like those started byMicrosoft co-founder Paul Allen and space entrepreneur Elon Musk

In the video below, Musk describes how he came to recognize opportunities in the space industry, and how he is looking to find the ‘Moore’s Law’ of space.

Watch the video here:

Discoveries of Earth-like planets this year has opened up the possibility that life is ubiquitous in the Universe. Further discoveries have identified massive bodies of water and other precious resources in space that can both sustain life and power human space travel. 


Depending who you ask, there’s a 20 to 50 percent chance that you’re living in a computer simulation. How far will the growth in computing power take us? According to Daniel Burrus, a leading technology forecaster and business strategist, the e–commerce age is over, and the v–commerce age is about to begin.

Watch the video here:

Man Versus Machine

While 2011 saw the continuation of what could be a painful transition to the robot economy, theoretical physicist Dr. Michio Kaku points out there are two things that robots are no good at, and those to areas are where humans will find the jobs of the future. 

Watch the video here:

Does the inevitable merging of man with machine mean we need a Robot’s Bill of Rights? We still have a lot of work to do to protect ourselves from digital criminals. As Big Think blogger Marc Goodman points out, if we build [the criminals] will come. 


Daniel Kahneman, who won the Nobel Prize in economics in 2002, came out with a new book in 2011 called Thinking, Fast and Slow. Kahneman investigates two mental systems, fast thinking and slow thinking, and how they relate to decision making. While there are some instances in which we are faced with too many variables and too much volatility to make a good decision Kahneman shows that slow, deliberative reasoning is generally our best guide. 

New World Order

2011 was a bad year for dictators, terrorists, and the political status quo just about anywhere. Political scientist Bruce Bueno de Mesquita published a book this year called The Dictator’s Handbook: Why Bad Behavior is Almost Always Good Politics. One of the insights from de Mesquita’s research is that leaders, whether they are democratically elected or not, simply do not give up power willingly


Sal Khan is challenging a long-standing premise of classroom learning — that all students have to learn at the same pace. By removing the one-size-fits-all lecture from class and allowing teachers to invest more time on working with students in smaller groups geared toward their specific skill level, Khan has “flipped the classroom.” 

Watch the video here:


Employees aren’t children (by law in the United States, at least) but unsuccessful parents and bosses have one thing in common: they are expert demotivators. New York Times bestselling author Jim Collins argued in this video below that the best leaders don’t worry about motivating people – they hire passionate employees and don’t extinguish their passion. 

Watch the video here:

Sex and Marriage

Depending on how you view the institution, 2011 was either a great or terrible year for marriage. Big Think Pamela Haag muses about the future of marriage, replete with androids, avatars, cyber-affairs, cyber-sex, in vitro reproduction, marital term limits, polyamory and science fiction sex

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Gay marriage, on the other hand, took a great leap forward with the legalization of same sex marriage in the state of New York. Monogamy didn’t fare so well either this year, as experts such as Christopher Ryan argued in his book Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origin of Modern Sexualitythat we are hard-wired to behave like promiscuous chimps with multiple mates. 


If you’ve noticed an increase in the number of atheists on Big Think this year, you are not mistaken. This is largely due to two men: Penn Jilleette and Adam Lee. Jilette published the book God No! and came on Big Think to deliver his Atheist’s Guide to the 2012 Election, which was one of our most popular videos of the year. Adam Lee joined Big Think’s ranks this year, and quickly became one of our most popular and controversial bloggers. Big Think does not endorse any particular viewpoint on religion. 

We will close with what I believe to be the most optimistic idea of 2011. It comes from Steven Pinker. In his new book, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence has Declined, Pinker presents a massive body of evidence to support the notion that humans have evolved to tame ourselves. That means that humans today, Pinker argues, are less violent and more cooperative than any other time in our history. A key reason for this is language, which allows us to share and spread transformative ideas, which today we are doing faster and more efficiently than ever before. Pat yourself on the back, mankind. 2011 was a great year for ideas!

Max Miller, Orion Jones, Jason Gots and Megan Erickson contributed to this article. 

Image courtesy of Shutterstock

Follow Daniel Honan on Twitter @Daniel Honan


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