The feature dispatches, articles, columns, and essays in The Atlantic’s November issue include:
The 50 Greatest Inventions Since the Wheel
Why did it take so long to invent the wheelbarrow? Have we hit peak innovation? Which inventions have done the most to shape the nature of modern life? These questions inspired James Fallows and The Atlantic, along with a panel of 12 scientists, entrepreneurs, engineers, and historians of technology, to assess the technological breakthroughs that have done the most to transform the way we live today. From anesthesia (No. 46) to the plow (No. 30), the pill (No. 20) to gunpowder (No. 14), Fallows explores what the list reveals about imagination, optimism, and the nature of progress.
Plus, the venture capitalist John Doerr predicts two coming breakthroughs to bet on: battery technology and digital health.
Fifty or 100 years from now, who will scholars of technology identify as the Eli Whitneys or the Thomas Edisons of the early 21st century, the visionaries whose inventions shaped the world? The Atlantic asked leading figures in technology, science, medicine, and design to nominate the person alive today whose work they believe will have the greatest impact on society. Here, the 10 thinkers they chose—including Elon Musk, a co-founder of PayPal, SpaceX, and Tesla Motors; Janette Sadik-Khan, the commissioner of New York City’s Department of Transportation; and Jeff Beszos, the founder and CEO of Amazon.
The Great Forgetting
We rely on computers to fly our planes, find our cancers, design our buildings, and audit our businesses. That’s all well and good, but what happens when the computer fails? Nicholas Carr wonders: What are we humans forfeiting to automation?
The New Science of Old Whiskey
In April 2006, a tornado struck the Buffalo Trace Distillery in Frankfort, Kentucky, devastating the warehouse and leaving 25,000 barrels of whiskey exposed to the elements. Years after the cleanup, the barrels were opened and the bourbon was good. Really good. Which is why, Wayne Curtis explains, bourbon makers are attempting to better understand the science behind a 2,000-year-old invention, the barrel—and maybe even improve its design.
The Man Who Would Teach Machines to Think
When he was 35, in 1980, Douglas Hofstadter won the Pulitzer Prize for his book on how the mind works, Gödel, Escher, Bach. It became the bible of artificial intelligence, the book of the future. But then AI changed, and Hofstadter didn’t change with it. As James Somers reports, he all but disappeared from the field. But what if the best ideas about AI—answers to questions like “What is thinking?”—are yellowing in Hofstadter’s desk drawer in Indiana, far from academic circles and the conference circuit?
- The Case for Hate Speech: History shows that the more open the intellectual environment, the better minorities will do. Which is why, in Jonathan Rauch’s view, Anita Bryant, Jerry Falwell, and Orson Scott Card have all actually helped advance the cause of gay rights. Read more
- Why You Look Like Your Dog: Could there be something to the old adage that people resemble their pets? As Sarah Yager reports, yes—in fact, scientific research backs it up. Read more
- The Riddle of Amazon: The global shopping behemoth is beloved by investors despite practically nonexistent profits and a bewildering grand strategy. Which has Derek Thompson wondering: What exactly is Jeff Bezos trying to build? A retail company? A media empire? A logistics machine? Read more
- A Brief History of Dude: Depending on its intonation and overall context, dude can mean so many different things (the exclamatory Duuude!, the firm and sober Dude, and so on). In this month’s Worldplay, J. J. Gould tracks the word’s cultural evolution. Read more
- Small Business, Tall Tales: Despite what you hear on the campaign trail, small businesses are not key to economic expansion. The real drivers of growth, reports Nicole Allan, are new companies. Read more
The Culture File:
- The Passion of Flannery O’Connor: For James Parker, a prayer journal kept by the writer in her early 20s sheds new light on her biblical ironies. Read more
- How T Bone Burnett Plays Hollywood: Paul Elie explores how the once-quirky producer has become the master of the folk-music soundtrack. Read more
- An American Moviegoer in Paris: Sitting in her favorite Left Bank theaters, watching films from the U.S., Meghan O’Rourke felt both at home and far away, a traveler’s dream. Read more