A captivating journey to the outer reaches of human knowledge
Ever since the dawn of civilization, we have been driven by a desire to know - to understand the physical world and the laws of nature. But are there limits to human knowledge? Are some things simply beyond the predictive powers of science? Or are those challenges the next big discovery waiting to happen?
In The Great Unknown, one of the world's most beloved mathematicians takes us into the minds of science's greatest innovators as he probes the many deep mysteries we have yet to solve. He reminds us that major breakthroughs were often ridiculed at the time of their discovery and takes us on a whirlwind tour of seven frontiers of knowledge, where scientists are grappling with the unknown. Can you locate consciousness in the brain? Is our universe infinite? What is dark energy made of? What happens to time in space? Is it possible to beat ageing?
At once exhilarating and mind bending, The Great Unknown will challenge you to think in new ways about every aspect of the known world. It invites us to consider big questions - about who we are and the nature of God - that even the most creative scientists have yet to answer definitively.
"Brilliant and fascinating. No one is better at making the recondite accessible and exciting." (Bill Bryson)
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Science Museum in a Book (this is a compliment :)
Under another publisher this book is titled "What We Cannot Know". This speaks to the philosophizing at the end of the book, where Du Sautoy summarizes his thoughts on the "Seven Journeys" mentioned in the alternate title. This alternate title better reflects the broader character of the book - like a walk through a science museum, the reader is generally left to explore and make up his or her own mind as we encounter Du Sautoy's seven topics: Chaos, Matter, Quantum Physics, the Universe, Time, Consciousness, and Infinity.
This is where Du Sautoy shines - you can practically see him in the inevitable BBC documentary pointing out lab equipment and sipping tea as he visits enlightened colleagues. If you love this kind of stuff - science museums and BBC or PBS documentaries - you'll love this book. There are even some cutting edge surprises here: Rovelli's Thermal Time and Tononi's Integrated Information Theory are two standouts I found myself researching further after Du Sautoy's mentions.
So, what of this overall "What We Cannot Know" thesis? Du Sautoy saves most of this discussion for the final chapter, which is largely too short for a rigorous philosophical treatment. As is right for a mathematician, he invokes Gödel's incompleteness theorems, mentions Alonzo Church, and generally hedges his bets. Interestingly, where Du Sautoy feels eggshells beneath his feet the most is at the "small" end of the spectrum, briefly mentioning the limitation of Plank length, whereas I found myself feeling very solid about our collective ability to discover further and further fundamentals of Quanta and Matter, but less sure about our future understanding of the Universe and Infinity. This is a good feeling at the end of a science and philosophy-of-science book, when you are confident to be slightly at odds with the author, while having thoroughly enjoyed the ride.
On final note: having recently completed a History of Science: 1700 to 1900 by Frederick Gregory, I can tell you these two books are excellent back-to-back reads. For all we can and cannot know, I can at least say that with certainty ;)