The Island of Knowledge: The Limits of Science and the Search for Meaning

The Island of Knowledge: The Limits of Science and the Search for Meaning

3.5 2
by Marcelo Gleiser
     
 

View All Available Formats & Editions


Do all questions have answers? How much can we know about the world? Is there such a thing as an ultimate truth?

To be human is to want to know, but what we are able to observe is only a tiny portion of what’s “out there.” In The Island of Knowledge, physicist Marcelo Gleiser traces our search for answers to the most fundamental

Overview


Do all questions have answers? How much can we know about the world? Is there such a thing as an ultimate truth?

To be human is to want to know, but what we are able to observe is only a tiny portion of what’s “out there.” In The Island of Knowledge, physicist Marcelo Gleiser traces our search for answers to the most fundamental questions of existence. In so doing, he reaches a provocative conclusion: science, the main tool we use to find answers, is fundamentally limited.

These limits to our knowledge arise both from our tools of exploration and from the nature of physical reality: the speed of light, the uncertainty principle, the impossibility of seeing beyond the cosmic horizon, the incompleteness theorem, and our own limitations as an intelligent species. Recognizing limits in this way, Gleiser argues, is not a deterrent to progress or a surrendering to religion. Rather, it frees us to question the meaning and nature of the universe while affirming the central role of life and ourselves in it. Science can and must go on, but recognizing its limits reveals its true mission: to know the universe is to know ourselves.

Telling the dramatic story of our quest for understanding, The Island of Knowledge offers a highly original exploration of the ideas of some of the greatest thinkers in history, from Plato to Einstein, and how they affect us today. An authoritative, broad-ranging intellectual history of our search for knowledge and meaning, The Island of Knowledge is a unique view of what it means to be human in a universe filled with mystery.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“Gleiser has a gift for telling a story grandly and clearly. His history is nothing if not thorough, beginning in early superstition and mythology and methodically working up to current scientific questions in cosmology and physics. Along the way, he touches on everything from philosophy to optics to artificial intelligence.”
Science

“Partway between Hannah Arendt’s timeless manifesto for the unanswerable questions at the heart of meaning and Stuart Firestein’s case for how not-knowing drives science, Gleiser explores our commitment to knowledge and our parallel flirtation with the mystery of the unknown. What emerges is at once a celebration of human achievement and a gentle reminder that the appropriate reaction to scientific and technological progress is not arrogance over the knowledge conquered, which seems to be our civilizational modus operandi, but humility in the face of what remains to be known and, perhaps above all, what may always remain unknowable.... The Island of Knowledge is an illuminating read in its totality.”
Brain Pickings

“[Gleiser] is a gifted writer.”
Physics Today

“[Gleiser’s] discussions of cosmology and multiple universes are compelling.... [The Island of Knowledge] probe[s] deep into one of the most difficult intellectual problems on the human agenda.... [A] thorough and clear guide to the philosophical problems posed by the nature of the subatomic world.”
Washington Post

“The quest goes on, always presenting us with new things to wonder about and to wonder at. Without that sense of wonder, as Mr. Gleiser’s excellent book makes clear, there would be no point in doing science at all.”
—John Gribbin, Wall Street Journal

“Gleiser, who puts his faith in ‘humility and hope,’ writes with thoughtfulness and sensitivity, and without assuming that our current state of scientific knowledge is any more complete or final than that of previous generations.”
Columbia Dispatch

“The process that shapes public policy often includes debate about what scientific evidence does, can and can’t tell us. That debate can be enriched by this book.”
Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

“Gleiser covers a broad swath of subjects—from cognition and curved space to particle physics, superstring theory, and multiverses—with a thoughtful, accessible style that balances philosophy with hard science. His island imagery will capture readers’ imagination as it examines the ideas that unnerve us even as they illuminate our world.”
Publishers Weekly, starred review

The Island of Knowledge is a history of the mind, its gift for finding ideas in things. The brilliance of centuries of philosophic and scientific inquiry, never more remarkable than at present, bears a profound resemblance to the brilliance it discovers in the universe. Marcelo Gleiser makes us feel what a privilege it is to be human.”
—Marilynne Robinson, winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the National Humanities Medal, and author of Gilead and Absence of Mind: The Dispelling of Inwardness from the Modern Myth of the Self

“We've come to know far more than our ancestors could possibly have imagined—including the depth of our ignorance. In Gleiser's lucid narrative, that marvelous paradox comes alive.”
—Frank Wilczek, Nobel Laureate, and author of The Lightness of Being

“Marcelo Gleiser brings a physicist's knowledge, a philosopher's wisdom, and a poet's language to elucidate our largest questions. If you finish The Island of Knowledge with all the same opinions with which you began it, then turn to page one and start reading again.”
—Rebecca Goldstein, MacArthur Fellow, and author of Plato at the Googleplex

“Articulate, elegant, and at times poignant, The Island of Knowledge is a magnificent account of humanity's struggle to understand its place in the cosmos. Starting from ancient knowledge of the motions of stars and planets and progressing to contemporary scientific theories of the origins of space and time, Gleiser shows how our efforts to comprehend the universe have transformed it into something rich and strange.”
—Seth Lloyd, Professor of Mechanical Engineering, MIT, and author of Programming the Universe

“Gleiser writes very well. He introduces the necessary concepts along the way, and is remarkably accurate while using a minimum of technical details. Some anecdotes from his own research and personal life are nicely integrated with the narrative and he has a knack for lyrical imagery which he uses sparsely but well timed to make his points.”
—Sabine Hossenfelder, Back Reaction blog

“Gleiser’s exploration provides a thorough primer to the perplexing questions 20th-century physics raised about our comprehension of reality. This scientific education is interwoven with history and philosophy, providing a balanced and often enlightening perspective on the bounds of science. Highly recommended to those interested in theoretical physics and philosophy of science.”
Library Journal

Kirkus Reviews
2014-04-22
Gleiser (Natural Philosophy, Physics and Astronomy/Dartmouth Coll.; A Tear at the Edge of Creation: A Radical New Vision for Life in an Imperfect Universe, 2010, etc.) seeks an answer to the question, "Can we make sense of the world without belief?"The author suggests that even scientific giants like Newton and Einstein depended on "intuition and personal prejudice" to extend their knowledge, knowing full well the limitations of their theories. Scientific knowledge has advanced since their groundbreaking discoveries, but so, too, has our understanding of its inherent limitations. Gleiser contends that although we can extend our understanding of how the universe works, our efforts to penetrate reality will always include an element of unsubstantiated belief. The author traces the history of science, including Aristotle's Earth-centered model of the heavens, which was upended by Copernicus and his successors. This led to the achievements of classical physicists such as Newton and James Maxwell in understanding gravity and electromagnetism and culminated with Einstein's Theory of Relativity. Then, Gleiser tackles current cosmological theories—e.g., the Big Bang, the expanding universe and the possibilities that it is only one of infinitely many other universes. For readers unfamiliar with the material, this will be a lot to comprehend, even though the author uses descriptive metaphors to make it more accessible. Gleiser also examines the anomalies of quantum physics, such as the odd behaviors of electrons or photons that appear to be particles in some experiments and waves in others, and he gives examples of electrons that appear to communicate instantaneously, a step back to Newton that Einstein criticized "as spooky action at-a-distance." Gleiser ends with an examination of information theory.Readers may find this to be an overly ambitious attempt to provide a historical perspective to the scientific enterprise that is more confusing than illuminating.
Library Journal
08/01/2014
Gleiser (Appleton Professor of Natural Philosophy, physics and astronomy, Dartmouth Coll.; A Tear at the Edge of Creation) draws a visual analogy between humanity's body of knowledge and an island. As our learning of the universe grows, the boundaries of the island expand into the sea, but sometimes our understanding recedes, too, diminishing the landmass. This vision captures the vast unknowability, perhaps infinitude, of the confines of knowledge. Gleiser, building from this analogy, examines the limits of the discipline to reveal exhaustively objective knowledge and of scientific theory to explain our universe. New theories, such as within quantum mechanics, can reveal strangely complex and challenging ideas to our sense of reality. In conclusion, the author argues that despite science being the "best tool…for describing the world…[it] is not a reflection of a God-given truth." VERDICT Gleiser's exploration provides a thorough primer to the perplexing questions 20th-century physics raised about our comprehension of reality. This scientific education is interwoven with history and philosophy, providing a balanced and often enlightening perspective on the bounds of science. Highly recommended to those interested in theoretical physics and philosophy of science.—Scott Vieira, Sam Houston State Univ. Lib., Huntsville, TX

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780465031719
Publisher:
Basic Books
Publication date:
06/03/2014
Pages:
368
Sales rank:
631,260
Product dimensions:
6.10(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.50(d)

Meet the Author


Marcelo Gleiser is Appleton Professor of Natural Philosophy and Professor of Physics and Astronomy at Dartmouth College. He has published numerous popular works, including an essay, “Emergent Realities in the Cosmos,” which was featured in 2003’s Best American Science Writing, and three previous books: The Dancing Universe, The Prophet and the Astronomer, and A Tear at the Edge of Creation.

Customer Reviews

Average Review:

Write a Review

and post it to your social network

     

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See all customer reviews >

The Island of Knowledge: The Limits of Science and the Search for Meaning 3.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago