“No one is better at making the recondite accessible and exciting.” —Bill Bryson
Brain Pickings and Kirkus Best Science Book of the Year
Every week seems to throw up a new discovery, shaking the foundations of what we know. But are there questions we will never be able to answer—mysteries that lie beyond the predictive powers of science? In this captivating exploration of our most tantalizing unknowns, Marcus du Sautoy invites us to consider the problems in cosmology, quantum physics, mathematics, and neuroscience that continue to bedevil scientists and creative thinkers who are at the forefront of their fields.
At once exhilarating, mind-bending, and compulsively readable, The Great Unknown challenges us to consider big questions—about the nature of consciousness, what came before the big bang, and what lies beyond our horizons—while taking us on a virtuoso tour of the great breakthroughs of the past and celebrating the men and women who dared to tackle the seemingly impossible and had the imagination to come up with new ways of seeing the world.
|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.40(w) x 8.60(h) x 1.10(d)|
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
“Everyone by nature desires to know.”
Every week, headlines announce new breakthroughs in our understanding of the universe, new technologies that will transform our environment, new medical advances that will extend our lives. Science is giving us unprecedented insights into some of the big questions that have challenged humanity ever since we’ve been able to formulate them. Where did we come from? What is the ultimate destiny of the universe? What are the building blocks of the physical world? How does a collection of cells become conscious?
In the last ten years alone we’ve landed a spaceship on a comet, built robots that can create their own language, used stem cells to repair the pancreas of diabetic patients, discovered how to use the power of thought to manipulate a robotic arm, and sequenced the DNA of a 50,000-year-old cave girl. Science magazines are bursting with the latest breakthroughs emerging from the world’s laboratories. We know so much more.
Science is our best weapon in our fight against fate. Instead of giving in to the ravages of disease and natural disaster, we have created vaccines to combat deadly viruses like polio and Ebola. As the world’s population continues to escalate, scientific advances provide the best hope of feeding the 9.6 billion people who are projected to be alive in 2050. Science warns us about the deadly impact we are having on our environment and gives us the chance to do something about it before it is too late. An asteroid might have wiped out the dinosaurs, but science is our best shield against any future direct hits. In the human race’s constant battle with death, science is its best ally.
Science is king not only when it comes to our fight for survival but also in improving our quality of life. We are able to communicate with friends and family across vast distances. We have created virtual worlds to which we can escape in our leisure time and can re-create in our living rooms the great performances of Mozart, Miles, and Metallica at the press of a button.
The desire to know is programmed into the human psyche. Early humans with a thirst for knowledge were the ones who survived to transform their environment. Those not driven by that craving were left behind. Evolution has favored the mind that wants to know the secrets of how the universe works. The adrenaline rush that accompanies the discovery of new knowledge is nature’s way of telling us that the desire to know is as important as the drive to reproduce. As Aristotle suggested in the opening line of Metaphysics, understanding how the world works is a basic human need.
When I was a schoolkid, science very quickly captivated me. I fell in love with its extraordinary power to reveal the workings of the universe. The fantastic stories that my science teachers told me seemed even more fanciful than the fiction I’d been reading at home. I persuaded my parents to buy me a subscription to New Scientist and devoured Scientific American in our local library. I hogged the television each week to watch episodes of Horizon and Tomorrow’s World. I was captivated by Jacob Bronowski’s Ascent of Man, Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, Jonathan Miller’s Body in Question. Every Christmas, the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures provided a dollop of science alongside our family turkey. My stocking was stuffed with books by George Gamow and Richard Feynman. It was a heady time, with new breakthroughs announced each week.
Alongside these stories of discovery, I began to get fired up by the untold tales. What we knew lay in the past but we didn’t yet know the future, my future. . I became obsessed with the puzzle books of Martin Gardner that my math teacher gave me. The excitement of wrestling with a conundrum and the sudden release of euphoria as I cracked each puzzle got me addicted to the drug of discovery. Those puzzles were my training ground for the greater challenge of tackling questions that didn’t have an answer in the back of the book. It was the unanswered questions, the mathematical mysteries and scientific puzzles that no one had cracked, that would become the fuel for my life as a scientist.
It is quite extraordinary how much more we have understood about the universe even in the half century that I’ve been alive. Technology has extended our senses so we can see things that were beyond the conception of the scientists who excited me as a kid. A new range of telescopes that look out at the night sky enabled us to discover planets like Earth that could be home to intelligent life. They have revealed the amazing fact that three quarters of the way into the lifetime of our universe, its expansion started to accelerate. I remember reading as a kid that we were in for a big crunch, but now it seems that we have a completely different future awaiting us.
Particle colliders like the Large Hadron Collider at CERN have allowed us to penetrate the inner workings of matter itself, revealing new particles—like the top quark discovered in 1994 and the Higgs boson discovered in 2012—that were bits of speculative mathematics when I was reading my New Scientist at school. And since the early ’90s the fMRI scanner has allowed us to look inside the brain and discover things that were not even considered part of the remit of science when I was a kid back in the ’70s. The brain was the preserve of philosophers and theologians, but today technology can reveal when you are thinking about Jennifer Aniston or predict what you are going to do next even before you know it yourself.
Biology has seen an explosion of breakthroughs. In 2003 it was announced that scientists had mapped an entire human DNA sequence consisting of 3 billion letters of genetic code. In 2011 the complete neuronal network of the C. elegans worm was published, providing a complete picture of how the 302 neurons in the worm areconnected. Chemists, too, have been breaking new territory. A totally new form of carbon was discovered in 1985, which binds together like a football, and chemists surprised us again in 2003 by creating the first examples of graphene, showing how carbon can form a honeycomb lattice one atom thick.
In my lifetime the subject to which I would eventually dedicate myself, mathematics, has seen some of the great enigmas finally resolved: Fermat’s Last Theorem and the Poincaré conjecture, two challenges that had outfoxed generations of mathematicians. New mathematical tools and insights have opened up hidden pathways to navigate the mathematical universe. Keeping up with all these new advances, let alone making your own contribution, is a challenge inits own right.
A few years ago I got a new job title to add to my role as a professor of mathematics at Oxford: the Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science. There seems to be a belief that with such a title I should know it all. People ring me up expecting me to know the answer to every scientific question. Shortly after I’d accepted the job, the Nobel Prize for medicine was announced. A journalist called, hoping for an explanation of the breakthrough that was being rewarded: the importance of telomeres.
Biology has never been my strong point, but I was sitting in front of my computer screen and so I’m embarrassed to admit I got the Wikipedia page up on telomeres and, after a quick scan, proceeded to explain authoritatively that they are the bit of genetic code at the end of our chromosomes that controls aging, among other things.The technology we have at our fingertips has increased that sense thatwe have the potential to know anything. Tap any question into a search engine and the device seems to predict, even before you finish typing, what you want to know and provides a list of places to find the answer.
But understanding is different from a list of facts. Is it possible for any scientist to know it all? To know how to solve nonlinear partial differential equations? To know how SU(3) governs the connection between fundamental particles? To know how cosmological inflation gives rise to the state of the universe? To know how to solve Einstein’s equations of general relativity or Schrödinger’s wave equation? To know how neurons and synapses trigger thought? Newton, Leibniz, and Galileo were perhaps the last scientists to know all that was known.
I must admit that the arrogance of youth infused me with the belief that I could understand anything that was known. With enough time, I thought, I could crack the mysteries of mathematics and the universe, or at least master the current lay of the land. But increasingly, I am beginning to question that belief, to worry that some things will forever remain beyond my reach. Often my brain struggles to navigate the science we currently know. Time is running out to know it all.
My own mathematical research is already pushing the limits ofwhat my human brain feels capable of understanding. I have been working for more than ten years on a conjecture that remains stubbornly resistant to my attempts to crack it. My new role as the Professorfor the Public Understanding of Science has pushed me outside the comfort zone of mathematics into the messy concepts of neuroscience, the slippery ideas of philosophy, the unfounded theories of physics. It has required a way of thinking that is alien to my mathematical mode of thought, which deals in certainties, proofs, and precision. My attempts to understand everything currently regarded asscientific knowledge has severely tested the limits of my own ability to understand.
We stand on the shoulders of giants, as Newton famously declared. And so my own journey to the frontiers of knowledge has pushed me to explore how others have articulated their work, to listen to lectures and seminars by those immersed in the field I’m trying to understand, and to talk to those pushing the boundaries of what is known, questioning contradictory stories and consulting the evidence recorded in scientific journals. How much can you trust any of these stories? Just because the scientific community accepts a story as the current best fit doesn’t mean it is true. Time and again, history reveals the opposite to be the case, and this must always act as a warning that current scientific knowledge is provisional. Mathematics has a slightly different quality, as a proof provides the chance to establish a more permanent state of knowledge. But even when I am creating a new proof, I will often quote results by fellow mathematicians whose proofs I haven’t checked myself. To do so would mean running in order to keep still.
For any scientist the real challenge is not to stay within the secure garden of the known but to venture out into the wilds of the unknown. That is the challenge at the heart of this book.
Table of Contents
Zero The Known Unknowns 1
First Edge Chaos 19
Second Edge Matter 73
Third Edge Quantum Physics 121
Fourth Edge The Universe 175
Fifth Edge Time 237
Sixth Edge Consciousness 299
Seventh Edge Infinity 361
Beyond the Edge 413
Further Reading 431
Illustration Credits 449