Year in Ideas

Every year for the past nine The Times Magazine has published an issue devoted to the best ideas of the year. I have read them all and confess, I cannot recall a single idea among the many that have been discussed. This isn’t due to any defect in my memory. Rather, it is a result of the very strange concept the Magazine has of an “Idea.” The 2009 issue begins with the following statement:

“…we have hunted eclectically, though not without discrimination, for noteworthy notions of 2009—the twigs and sticks and shiny paper scraps of human ingenuity …the most clever, important, silly and just plain weird innovations…ideas from science and art, politics and policy, technology and engineering, zombie studies…”

Thus, the Times views ideas as anything from notions, to bits of ingenuity, to innovations and well, yes, ideas. What is common to each of these “noteworthy notions” is that they are new in the sense of not existing before, or they are original, or are, for the first time, useful.

Consider the following examples, drawn somewhat randomly from the latest collection of the year’s best ideas:

• Fake car noise—designed for the silent hybrid cars.

• Giving names to cows--found to increase milk production

• Glow in the dark dogs—created with genes taken from a sea anemone that emits red fluorescence

• Hour glass shaped surfboards—found to increase maneuverability

• Lithium in water supply—study found reduced suicides in Korea

• Printable batteries—printed with a complex compound instead of ink

• Stiletto shoes shaped like a lobster-claw, ankle high—“the world needs fantasy” said the designer

Are these ideas in the best sense of the term? Can’t we do a little better? Isn’t an idea something like a belief or abstract concept or a theory, model or hypothesis that has some generality? While the Times notable notions are primarily derived from current research, they are largely technical devices or “innovations” designed for a particular practical application.

We don’t see any concepts like Capitalism or Evolution or the General Theory of Relativity among the best ideas of 2009 and I don’t recall anything like them either in any of the previous issues. To be sure, concepts of that character are rarely formulated on an annual basis

Rather than a long list of notable notions that are always arranged alphabetically from A to Z, perhaps the Times might have a more interesting Year In Ideas issue if it concentrated on the one or two of the most provocative Ideas of the year. Were there not developments in the natural, biological or behavioral sciences during 2009 that were in this sense notable? Why not draw their Ideas from the many award programs such as the Nobels, MacArthur Genius Awards, Goldman Environmental Prizes, Lasker Medical Awards, etc. that recognize distinguished achievement in their respective fields? I’m sure I’d remember some of those.