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What We Cannot Know: Explorations at the Edge of Knowledge

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Britain’s most famous mathematician takes us to the edge of knowledge to show us what we cannot know.

Is the universe infinite?

Do we know what happened before the Big Bang?

Where is human consciousness located in the brain?

And are there more undiscovered particles out there, beyond the Higgs boson?

In the modern world, science is king: weekly headlines proclaim the latest scientific breakthroughs and numerous mathematical problems, once indecipherable, have now been solved. But are there limits to what we can discover about our physical universe?

In this very personal journey to the edges of knowledge, Marcus du Sautoy investigates how leading experts in fields from quantum physics and cosmology, to sensory perception and neuroscience, have articulated the current lie of the land. In doing so, he travels to the very boundaries of understanding, questioning contradictory stories and consulting cutting edge data.

Is it possible that we will one day know everything? Or are there fields of research that will always lie beyond the bounds of human comprehension? And if so, how do we cope with living in a universe where there are things that will forever transcend our understanding?

In What We Cannot Know, Marcus du Sautoy leads us on a thought-provoking expedition to the furthest reaches of modern science. Prepare to be taken to the edge of knowledge to find out if there’s anything we truly cannot know.

440 pages, Hardcover

First published May 5, 2016

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About the author

Marcus du Sautoy

34 books410 followers
Marcus Peter Francis du Sautoy, OBE is the Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science and a Professor of Mathematics at the University of Oxford.

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Profile Image for BlackOxford.
1,081 reviews68k followers
October 23, 2021
Stories For the Widening Gaps

I was educated in the school of anti-reductionism. That is, I was taught that knowledge of how the fundamental particles of the universe work would not help me understand what I might choose for dinner. I did take university courses in physics and chemistry, but the deterministic implications of science, those which suggested the fictional character of things like purpose and choice and free will, were never allowed to surface fully. It turns out that my views may simply be the result of never having encountered a literate reductionist. Marcus du Sautoy is such a literate reductionist. And I am tempted to rebel at an advanced age against my upbringing.

The classic objection to scientific reductionism - the idea that the world works strictly according to fixed laws of cause and effect - is that it can’t explain science and other apparently purposeful activities. But it turns out that there are good scientific reasons for this. The complexities of scientific thought, actually any thought, are so great that although its physics are deterministic - in the manner of billiard balls on green felt - its trajectory cannot be predicted. We cannot know either the starting point of the billiard balls or their random quantum connections.

It is this complexity, not any extraneous properties like spirit, or intelligence, or God, that leads, deterministically, to our stories about some substances other than energy and matter as important to human life. Properties that appear ‘emergent’ are simply those whose complexity we cannot (yet) penetrate. Our narratives of human motivation, character, and responsibility merely fill in the explanatory and predictive gaps created by this emergent complexity.

Interestingly, these gaps increase as science progresses. More knowledge about the world increases our understanding of its complexity even as we simplify our theoretical descriptions. Every scientific advance multiplies the number of unsolved scientific problems. What du Sautoy (and Donald Rumsfeld) calls the known unknowns blossom exponentially. But rather than project philosophical or theological narratives into these expanding gaps, we can only throw more science. The narratives that science supplies may be less literate but they are certainly more compelling. Human thought, it appears, becomes simultaneously more inclusive and less certain but yet more confident as it develops.

I admire this implication. It is a humbling observation that we are not exempt from the materiality of the rest of the universe. The exceptionalism of humanity in its own mind has been the cause of much misery. Everything we know is uncertain. Kant, it appears has been vindicated - we can never even hope to know the universe as it is. Yet we can have confidence in our scientific narratives because... well because they provide something for which to hope. This hope is not one of personal salvation, or the coming of some other universe but one of realizing human harmony with the universe as it exists. This, I think, is the principle ethical content of modern physics: that there is an inescapable necessity to conform, even when we believe we are rebelling.

Traditionally, ethics have been grounded in one’s view of anthropology. Some believe that appropriate human behaviour can be deduced from the necessities for survival; others that there are divinely mandated rules for conduct. What du Sautoy’s scientific narrative suggests is that this anthropological view is arbitrary in terms of both its level of analysis as well as its presumptions about what it means to be human. Why not a ‘fundamental particulate’ ethics? And why not a complete abrogation of any fixed, final definition of what these fundamental particles might be? This approach would suggest that the search for what it means to be human is the real ethical task, a task which should never result in dogma that is purported to be certain.

It could be that my sympathy for du Sautoy’s account is prompted by his own sympathy for Plato over Aristotle - an attitude roughly equivalent to a psycho-analyst preferring Jung to Freud. Du Sautoy quotes Werner Heisenberg approvingly: ‘Modern physics has definitely decided in favour of Plato. In fact, the smallest units of matter are not physical objects in the ordinary sense; they are forms, ideas which can be expressed unambiguously only in mathematical language.’ So then, science, art and philosophy appear as random variants of the same deterministic trajectory. We can’t seem to stop ourselves from doing the same thing - telling stories - in different ways.

All sorts of criteria for verifying science - or for preferring Plato over Aristotle - have been used historically: simplicity, elegance, statistical correlation, logical implication, and tradition, among many others. The criteria are as unstable as the results of science itself, and they vary among disciplines and are differentially favoured by individual scientists within disciplines. It doesn’t take much insight to recognize what du Sautoy admits: the criteria of scientific analysis are unavoidably aesthetic; they correspond to what we find beautiful. Beauty may be correlated with things like usefulness and consistency in evolutionary terms but it nevertheless stands alone as the proximate cause of scientific action.

So the stories we tell ourselves are better or worse not by any objective standard but by the inherent arbitrariness and subjectivity of our appreciation of what constitutes the beautiful. Our nervous systems are even apparently constructed so as to provide illusions when confronted with incoherence. Having said that, it is clear that beauty is not entirely arbitrary or subjective. Beauty is something we are taught, like language. It may appear that certain forms or ideas are ‘obviously’ more beautiful than others but only because there is no challenge to them within our social group.

Science, it seems, is the evolved social institution in which just this debate about aesthetic criteria must take place. And the historical narrative of science is one of continuous instability, a story of changing fashion and taste. This, not some fixed standard, is what we mean by ‘reason’ - intense but non-violent argument about how to argue. The content of reason, its meaning, varies more or less continuously. Any attempt to halt the evolution of reason - by religious authority or governmental dictate - will therefore ultimately fail as unreasonable.

Could it be that the narratives of continuity that we tell ourselves - of personality, of memory, of culture, of history - are mere gap-filling? Having disposed of God as the explanation for what we find inexplicable, we seem to rely even more heavily on stories about ourselves - psychological, behavioural, even spiritual stories that have the same function as the old fashioned religious narratives: providing comforting continuity. These stories may be put forward as scientific but are they anything but pseudo-science in their insistence as being ‘truthful’ given that they cannot account for the fundamental discontinuities of our existence? Scientific determinism, therefore, has an unexpected effect - it opens the world to change, innovation, surprise, even opportunity, particularly the opportunity to create new stories.

I feel a certain satisfaction in the uncertainty created by this conclusion. And it gives me some comfort as well. In a way, it seems to me, recent science frees story telling, and therefore all of literature, from the stigma of ‘fiction’. What is the distinguishing mark of science other than its unconstrained swapping of stories? The fact that we can’t know anything definitively, neither the length of the hypotenuse of a right triangle of unit size, nor the character of a photon, means, perhaps, that we have evolved randomly precisely in order to produce and exchange fictions. Jorge Luis Borges would probably be pleased. And Adam Levin in his novel of spiritual determinism, The Instructions, provides a rather apt summary of the situation: “It is good to do justice because God will kill you and your family whether you do justice or not.”
Profile Image for David Rubenstein.
801 reviews2,521 followers
August 13, 2017
This is a fascinating book about the theoretical limits of our knowledge, our ability to make predictions, and to understand the universe. Marcus du Sautoy is a professor of mathematics at Oxford University. A central theme of the book, is to show how mathematics works as a powerful tool in helping us understand nature, and the limits to our understanding of how it works.

The book begins with a discussion of throwing a 6-sided die. With perfect knowledge of the position, velocity, and rotation of the die, is the outcome predictable? Actually, the answer depends on the friction of the table onto which the die is thrown. For certain ranges of friction, chaos prevents predictability.c

So the book relates the story of King Oscar II of Norway and Sweden, who celebrated his 60th birthday by offering a gold medal prize to whomever solved a math puzzle; "Is the solar system stable?" Poincare worked on this puzzle, and submitted a paper analyzing the orbits of two planets and a speck of dust. He showed that they followed periodic paths. The editor of the journal showed a gap in the proof, so Poincare tried to stop publication, but it was too late. Poincare had discovered that small perturbations to a stable orbit could make the system fly apart. This led to the discovery of chaos. In 2009, French astronomers modeled the solar system's stability many times, adding slight perturbations. The orbits of Jupiter and Saturn were very stable, but in 1% of the simulations, Mercury's orbit had a resonance with Jupiter, allowing Mercury to collide with Venus, which then collides with the Earth.

It is well known that the Earth's atmosphere is a chaotic system. A small perturbation leads to unpredictable outcomes. This idea feeds the claims of climate-change deniers, that we cannot predict a change in climate. Sautoy brings up the quote,
Not believing in climate change because you can't trust weather reports is a bit like saying you can't tell when the next wave is going to break on Bondi Beach because you don't believe in tides.
Sautoy gives the clearest explanation of wave-particle duality and some of the paradoxes of quantum mechanics, that I have ever read. He discusses elementary particle physics. He brings up the paradox, that electrons behave as if they have no volume, yet they have mass. But then, what is their density? Is it infinite? Is each electron a tiny black hole?

Sautoy brings up a very interesting aspect of Heisenberg's uncertainty principle. Heisenberg's original paper on the subject is often misunderstood. It is not that the act of observation affects a system. Heisenberg was forced to put that example into his paper in order to get it approved by skeptical editors. Even without a direct interaction with a particle, the product of uncertainties in its position and momentum is limited. It's not that we cannot simultaneously precisely measure position and momentum. It is that they do not exist until we measure them.

Many scientists equate God with "things we cannot know." Heisenberg's uncertainty principle also holds for time and energy. When you look at empty space for a short period of time, there is uncertainty in the energy content; space can never be truly empty. Since energy can change into mass, particles can spontaneously appear in a vacuum. So, there is no need for a creator. Some people give the definition of God as the solution to a question, such as "why is there something rather than nothing?" The trouble with most religions, is that God is then given so many properties that god ends up having nothing to do with the definition. It is like working backwards, conjuring up properties without understanding the original definition. One could define God as the existence of things we cannot know. To declare oneself as an atheist is to mean there is nothing we cannot know. But to say that there are things we cannot know, then, is a proof that God exists.

Cosmology is a science where not all questions are, in principle, answerable. This is a "Copernican" aspect of things. The universe is expanding and in the past seven billion years, the expansion rate has been accelerating. Dark energy is hypothesized as the cause. In the distant future, we won't be able to see other galaxies, as space will have disappeared from view, beyond the sphere of our visible universe. But we will still see the stars in our Milky Way galaxy. So, we are lucky to know that other galaxies even exist. Some day in the far future, this knowledge may be lost.

Sautoy describes an interesting set of experiments designed to fool the brain into thinking that your seat of consciousness is located elsewhere--in another person or even in a Barbie doll! Then there is a fascinating discussion of experiments dealing with consciousness. A group of philosophers believes that science can never solve the problem of consciousness. But, we are reminded of the prediction of the philosopher Comte, who foretold that we would never know what is at the heart of a star.

This book is written in a very accessible style. Sautoy gives crystal-clear explanations. I enjoyed every page of this book, as it gave me different ways to think about the universe, and the role of mathematics in unraveling its mysteries.
Profile Image for Marc.
3,041 reviews1,047 followers
January 10, 2022
Maybe you thought this was a book about science? Well, actually, this is a love story, really! At least every 10 pages du Sautoy confesses his unbridled love to ... mathematics, the perfect universal language of our cosmos. That is not surprising, because Marcus du Sautoy is a professor of mathematics at Oxford, and obsessed by the maths virus since he was a kid.

He uses that ‘weapon’ of mathematics to look at the sciences, starting from the question of whether there is anything that we will never know. Indeed quite a challenge, such a difficult question. And the whole, rather predictable, list passes: the question whether the laws of nature are truly universally valid, the search for the smallest building block of matter, the question of whether our universe is infinite and whether there was anything before the Big Bang, the question what time really is and finally the riddle of human consciousness. Du Sautoy sketches the scientific progress in these domains with a lot of verve, to arrive at very annoying stalemates, as a result of chaos theory, the uncertainty principle of Heisenberg, quantum theory, etc., and that is also a well-known list.

It turns out that indeed there are questions that are (provisionally) unanswerable. And although Du Sautoy believes with heart and soul in the progress of science (especially by using creativity, not so much by observing and experimenting), there are apparently issues that we can never know the ‘truth’ about. Even his beloved mathematics does not escape that fate; perhaps mathematics itself is 'only' a language that is limited by the human brain that constantly works in and through language and that is determined by the physicality of men. He formulates this as a possible explanation, more like a question even, without affirming it (it must have hurt him a lot).

It adorns Du Sautoy that he does not shy away from the thorny question of God in these observations, on the contrary. After all, he is the successor to none other than the polemic "religion-fighter" Richard Dawkins at the professoral chair for the Public Understanding of Science in Oxford. Just as Dawkins, du Sautoy openly proclaims himself as an atheist (with the exception of his football club Arsenal, that is) and in this book he studies various images of God claiming to fill the open spaces in science (that which we cannot know). They are viewed with respect by him, but they are rejected as insufficient or problematic.

In the end, Sautoy argues for a form of scientific opportunism: let us embrace the uncertainties we now identify in the sciences, but then as a challenge to continue our scientific work, as creative as possible, and perhaps some day we will find answers to some seemingly unknowable issues; and if not, we simply continue to work within what we can know, in those areas science has already made huge strides and will continue to be successful.

I certainly recommend the reading of this book, but for the layman this work still is quite difficult. du Sautoy does his uttermost to be as clear as possible, but I had a hard time especially when he brings up mathematical examples or explanations (but, of course, that might be due to my mathematical insufficiency). So, however appealing, it’s a bit of a hard nut to crack. Some disappointment also because about 4/5 of the issues that the author touches upon comes from the world of physics; only the chapter on consciousness is an exception. But for example the whole interesting domain of biology remains completely out of the picture, and then of course we don’t even mention the human sciences.

I read this book to see to what extent the entire movement of Systems Thinking, Cybernetics and Complexity Theory are discussed. To my surprise, they aren't! Yet there are indirect references to these currents: the author occasionally uses the term "emergent property", in the end he admits that the core problem of science is that we belong to the reality that we're investigating, and in the chapter on the mathematics he uses the term 'system' several times. That is strange, because Systems Thinking and its relatives fundamentally embrace the uncertainties that are hidden in our reality, and they offer a method to deal in a pragmatic and scientifically sound way with these uncertainties. However interesting this book may be, this certainly is a gap.
Profile Image for WarpDrive.
272 reviews386 followers
December 14, 2017
Brilliant, highly accessible, extremely readable and riveting exploration of the limits of human knowledge.

The author is a Professor of Mathematics at the University of Oxford, and he is highly renown for his excellent, contagious, enthusiastic divulgation to the wider public of the beauty of the mathematical world.

His exploration of the boundaries of human knowledge is multi-faceted, encompassing a variety of disparate disciplines such as quantum physics, cosmology and relativity, probability, chaos theory, computation theory, neurosciences and, of course, mathematical logic, number theory and the foundations and nature of mathematics. Even some important aspects of philosophy of science and mathematics are briefly touched by the author.

Very easy reading, accessible to everyone but at the same time conceptually accurate and quite informative, this book will probably provide not that much new information to more sophisticated users who are already knowledgeable in these areas of expertise (the book does not really provide much depth on any of the topics it examines), but it is a really pleasant read for everybody - in fact, while addressing with competence and clarity many important and fascinating issues in contemporary science and mathematics, the author manages to accomplish it in such a concise and brilliant way as to require only a minimum pre-requisite knowledge in order to be fully savored.

I also particularly enjoyed his contagious love for the beautiful world of mathematics - in his infectious, almost Pythagorean enthusiasm for this discipline, he can be put on a par with giants such as Penrose.

Highly recommended.

Some of my fav. quotes from the book:
-"mathematics is infinite. It goes on forever. Unlike chess, which has an estimated 10^10^50 different games that are possible, the provable statements of mathematics are infinite in number. Mathematics does not have an endgame."
-"that is the power of mathematics: to use our finite brain to know the infinite"
-"one of the reasons for believing that science is producing true knowledge is its success rate. Science is so successful in its description and prediction of the way things appear to be that we feel like it must be getting close to a reality that most of us believe does exist"
-"if the map that you are using consistently gets you to your destination, that's a good sign that the map is a pretty accurate representation of reality. Science may not "really" represent reality, but there isn't anything that comes even close as an alternative"
Profile Image for Ettore1207.
387 reviews
January 25, 2019
Scrivere un libro su "ciò che non possiamo sapere", se ci pensate bene, è un ossimoro e un compito arduo. Non c'è dubbio che l'autore abbia una gran testa, il libro è interessante, e sarà ancor più apprezzato da chi possiede conoscenze di matematica e fisica più solide delle mie traballanti. Alcune parti le ho capite poco, ma non certo per colpa dell'autore.
Non mi preoccupo più di tanto, e invoco a mia parziale discolpa quanto segue:

Devo ammettere che la natura controintuitiva del mondo quantistico mi sta dando grossi problemi. A quanto pare, comunque, è un buon segno: come ebbe a dire il fisico Niels Bohr, «se la fisica quantistica non vi ha profondamente sconvolti, significa che non l’avete ancora capita».
Richard Feynman si spinse addirittura oltre, dichiarando che «non c’è nessuno che abbia capito la fisica quantistica». Nel corso di un discorso d’apertura tenuto quando aveva più di sessant’anni, ammise: «Potrei confessare subito che abbiamo sempre incontrato (segreto, segreto, chiudete le porte!), che abbiamo sempre incontrato, dicevo, un sacco di difficoltà nel comprendere la visione del mondo rappresentata dalla fisica quantistica. Mi mette in ansia ancora oggi».
Profile Image for Sara.
Author 2 books10 followers
April 2, 2017
There are so darn many pop science overview books out there. This is a particularly good one. The author has made a career of promoting science to the general public, he's done TV, radio, and previous books, and he's got it down. He expects his readers to be intelligent and to think but he doesn't throw a lot of equations at them. He comes up with clever and accurate metaphors that have not been done to death, and the hand-drawn illustrations are attractive and genuinely helpful.
Profile Image for Christopher.
1,250 reviews144 followers
October 31, 2016
Modern physics and mathematics have brought some major new discoveries in recent years, but there is a general feeling that we are approaching the limits of knowledge, and soon further discoveries will be much more difficult or outright impossible -- at least according to the current paradigms. In What We Cannot Know Marcus du Sautoy, an English mathematician who was elected Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford in 2008, tries to explain these impasses to a general audience. The book is essentially structured as a series of places where human inquiry is hitting a wall: 1) quantum physics, 2) elementary particles, 4) cosmology, 5) artificial intelligence or consciousness, and 6) abstract mathematics.

There have been a large number of popular science books in recent years trying to explain the insights of quantum physics or cosmology to a general audience with no particular ground in the sciences. Unfortunately, du Sautoy's book is not particularly competitive among them. Du Sautoy is longwinded and repetitive, and often the metaphors he constructs to make all this accessible for a layman audience, become so convoluted that the thread of the narrative is lost.

But perhaps the biggest flaw is the inconsistency in what kind of audience he is writing for. At one moment, du Sautoy is patiently explaining what a "light year" is, so he appears to assume an audience with the least background possible. But then later in the book he starts dropping one mathematical equation after another, and a better than ordinary familiarity with maths would be necessary to understand his point. As I read this, I kept thinking that if du Sautoy is employed as one of the foremost popularizers of science in the UK and the world, he's not doing a very good job.
Profile Image for Jose Moa.
519 reviews65 followers
November 7, 2017
A very good,interesting and deep in concepts and reflections book.
In words of the author : "What I want to try to explore is wether there are problems that we can prove will remain beyond knowledge despite any new insights".
In the knowledge subject are famous the words of Donal Rumsfeld :
There are known knowns.
There are known unknowns.
There are unknown unknowns.
The author first explore what is known and then especulate about the unknowns.
The book is divided in seven edges of known and unknown.

The first edge is about probability and chaos.
The second edge is about quantum mechanics and particle physics.
The third edge is about duality particle wave in quantun mechanics,the role of the observer,the incertidumbre principle and related subjects.
The fourth edge is about the shape of the universe,its finitude or infinitude,the Fermi paradox and the posibility of the multiverses.
The fifth edge is about time,the special snd general relativity,the posibles shapes of time,the causality,the black holes and also touch the cicles of time cosmology by Roger Penrose.
The sixth edge is about consciousness ,he says that explaning consciousness or the working of our brain using our own brain is a hard problem because we enter in a autoreference problem ; he also enters in the Integrated Information Theory related with the structure of connectivity and feedbacks in a network and also for example that the question of distinguishing zombies from conscious beings could remain as one of the unanswerable questions of science.
The seventh edge (the author is a mathematician that has written popular books about group theory ant the Riemann hypothesis ) is mostly abot the limits of knowledge in mathematics caused by the first and second Godels theorems that could make that the Goldbach conjecture or the Riemann hypothesis could remain forever out of reach for the human minds.
In the end he compares his list of problems in the edges with the seven riddles posed by de Bois-Reimond :
1.The ultimate nature of matter and force
2.The origin of motion
3.The origin of life
4.The apparent teleological arrangements of nature
5.The origins of simple sensations
6.The origins of inteligent thougth and languaje
7.The question of the free will.
A interesting feature of this book is that at least for me is the first time I have seen a good clear attempt to popularice a explanation of the difficult demostration of the two Godels theorems.

Recomended for everibody that would like a more deep insight of the nature of reality.

Profile Image for ReadsandThings.
190 reviews22 followers
October 9, 2016
I find this book really hard to rate. Despite always being told by her teachers and parents that science was not for girls and that I would always be bad at it because I was a girl (which turned out to be a self-fulfilling prophesy), I have always had a deep-seated fascination with science in general and astrophysics in particular. Ever since realising as a child that the universe was either infinite (and how could that be!?) or finite (and then, what was beyond it?!) I have had this aching desire to KNOW, and to know the limits of what we CAN know.
Clearly, I have no background in science at all, and 98 % of the book were completely over my head. That is why I find it hard to rate - I have no shred of context to estimate if the science is sound or if what he says makes sense.
On the other hand, I had so much fun with this book! I listened to the audiobook read by the author himself, who does a great job as a narrator. His own fascination with his subject and his joy in talking about it come across very clearly and are quite infectious (however, as a German I do have to say that his pronunciation of German terms and names is endearingly atrocious).
I kept finding myself wanting to ask the author questions, to clarify things I hadn't quite grasped or to expand on some part I found particularly interesting. I think that is the highest praise I can give to a book aiming to teach the reader something.
So I am giving this book 5 stars for the sheer pleasure I had listening to it, even though I have no way of rating the actual content.
146 reviews4 followers
January 13, 2018
It is fantastic book - it reads like a crime novel. Of course if one loves science and its "unsolvable mysteries" :)
Profile Image for Emre Sevinç.
143 reviews277 followers
June 8, 2016
If you've missed your share of popular science books on physics, cosmology, mathematics, and neuroscience during the last two decades, then this book can be a not-so-bad starting point. The author has a very down to earth style, and manages to be engaging at the same time. His objective is clear: are there aspects of live, universe, and everything that are in principle unknowable? Are there hard limits to science? The question is simple to ask, yet finding out definitive answers is not so easy. But by setting such a clear motivation, the reader is gently led towards the state-of-the-art in scientific knowledge. Along the way, the author shares nice conversations with scientists who not only know about their respective fields, but had been pioneers who had also spent time thinking about deeper questions. Some of them, such as John Polkinghorne, might surprise you about their perspective on physics and religion.

Unfortunately, no matter how engaging it generally is, the book fails to provide much depth on any of the topics it examines. In other words, if you already know about that topic then you'll be bored, and if the topic is totally new for you, then you'll be left scratching your head because of so many missing details. But if, in that case, the book manages to motivate you to dig a little deeper, your reward can be satisfying, but only after further reading. And that reading does not have to heavily technical, for example, whereas this book talks about dark matter and dark energy only superficially, "Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs: The Astounding Interconnectedness of the Universe" by Lisa Randall will be able to give you a much better picture (while still avoiding 'scary' mathematical formulae).

You might also like seeing a mathematics professor from Oxford struggling with interpretations of quantum physics, and trying to deal with the fuzzy nature of neuroscience research. The physical world is indeed messy, only approximately modeled, always waiting to surprise us, and still leaves a lot of things in the dark. But maybe, just like the author, you will get a deep satisfaction from our unstoppable appetite for scientific search and discovery.

Last but not the least, even if you had your fair share of popular science books, you might still learn a thing or two from this book regarding the edges and limits of mathematics, physics, and consciousness.
Profile Image for Ian.
705 reviews65 followers
June 1, 2019
A 2-star rating would better reflect my own personal enjoyment of this book. I’ve rated it 3 stars partly because there were sections that I enjoyed, and partly in an attempt to include an element of objectivity to the review. Normally if I give a non-fiction book 2 stars, it’s because of easily identifiable errors or because the author has been overly tendentious. I can’t say either of those things in this case. However, my own reaction can be summed up in the old relationship breakup cliché:

“It’s not you, it’s me.”

Professor du Sautoy is a mathematician, and he really, really, loves his subject. Unfortunately for me, maths was the subject I struggled with most at school. My eyes still tend to glaze over when I see an algebraic equation, and there are certainly plenty of those here. Pretty much every discussion in the book turns back to maths. For example, in discussing whether the Universe is either finite or infinite, the author comments that, whilst the finite is knowable, at first glance it would seem impossible to prove the existence of an infinite Universe. He then goes on to hold out hope that mathematics might one day be used to prove infinity by means of proof by contradiction (i.e. “a mathematical contradiction identified under the assumption of a finite Universe”).

I did enjoy the section on consciousness, and the discussion on whether humans have free will. Maybe that’s a sign that I prefer biology to physics. I also liked the discussion of Chaos Theory, and I quite enjoyed the section on quantum physics, if only because it was completely mind-boggling and constantly left me thinking “Whaaaaat?” However, if I’m being honest there were chunks of this book that I struggled to follow. Personally I wouldn’t recommend it unless you have an above average understanding of maths.
Profile Image for Marián Tabakovič.
132 reviews24 followers
December 18, 2021
Keď chcete porozumieť tomu, ako funguje svet - a ja chcem - nemôžete odignorovať tie najvyššie úrovne a úplne fundamentálne otázky. Prečo niečo vôbec existuje a prečo neexistuje nič? Čo bolo na začiatku reťazca, v ktorom sa niečo vytvára z niečoho iného? Prečo si uvedomujeme samých seba? Problémom je, že na to, aby človek dostal odpovede, ktoré nie sú banálne, absurdne zjednodušené, alebo nábožensky podfarbené, sa treba zahĺbiť do viacerých vedeckých disciplín. Vyštudoval som humanitné vedy a hoci mám rád populárnu vedu, nezvládol by som viac ako najzákladnejšie matematické a fyzikálne vzorce a rovnice. Knižka ma preto dosť potrápila, ale prehrýzol som sa ňou. Chcel som si otestovať svoj svetonázor, ktorý som si vytvoril ešte kdesi na strednej škole a rád som ním ohuroval pri krčmových debatách. Inak chýba mi to. V podnikoch, keď sú občas otvorené, sa o tom už nikto nebaví a na Facebooku sa mi to robiť nechce.

Takže, považujem sa za deistu (verím v akéhosi Boha filozofov, prvohýbateľa, ktorý vytvoril dokonalý vesmír a nezasahuje doňho), nevylučujem, že univerzum samotné môže mať vedomie (panteizmus), nevylučujem ďalšie vesmíry (teória multiverza) a nevylučujem reainkarnáciu vedomia. Vo vesmíre sa všetko recykluje, my sami sme vyskladaní z odpadu po výbuchu supernov, prečo by sa teda nerecyklovalo aj vedomie?

Kniha prekvapivo vrátila do hry aj teistický pohľad na Boha. Autor, hoci sa sám považuje skôr za ateistu, vážne rozoberal možnosť, že najvyššia bytosť môže do chodu sveta zasahovať bez toho, aby porušovala vlastné fyzikálne zákony. Môže to robiť cez teóriu chaosu (chovanie systémov je od istej zložitosti nepredvídateľné, hoci sú tam ostrovčeky stability), alebo cez kvantovú neurčitosť. No lenže prečo by dokonalá bytosť vytvorila nedokonalý vesmír? O tomto sa hádali už Newton s Leibnitzom.

Kvantový svet je ešte viac mind-blowing, ako som si myslel. Fascinovala ma informácia, že častica na kvantovej úrovni ako keby vedela, že je pozorovaná a správa sa vtedy inak, ako keď pozorovaná nie je. Neustálym pozorovaním ju vieme udržať v jednom stave, v ktorom by inak nevydržala. Tento bizár nikto nevie vysvetliť a vedci sa v Kodanskej interpretácii viacmenej len zhodli, že to proste tak je a že to nechajú tak. Celá realita je podľa autora akási nejasná a od určitej hĺbky prírodu nemôžeme pozorovať, keďže má v sebe zabudovaný limit.

Je možné, že okrem mnohých budúcností existuje aj mnoho minulostí. Minulosť je možno len akousi superpozíciou možností, ktoré vykryštalizujú až vo chvíli, keď sú pozorované. Dekel v tejto chvíli ulietava. :) Tieto veci vracajú do hry aj radikálny solipsizmus (som len ja, resp. sme len my, ostatné je v našej mysli) a teóriu, že žijeme v simulácii. Ak by všetko okrem prítomnosti a pozorovaných vecí existovalo len v nejakých protostavoch, bolo by to energeticky veľmi šetrné a pripomínalo by to napríklad počítačovú hru, kde sa lokácia vygeneruje až vo chvíli, keď do nej s avatarom vstúpite. Nemám na to jednoznačný názor.

Inak elektrón je po grécky jantár. To je krásne.
Profile Image for Asim Bakhshi.
Author 7 books253 followers
October 12, 2018
A popular and extremely readable, at times funny version of complex ideas on the cutting edge of science. I don't think it deserves three stars for a popular science lay-reader; however, Sautoy failed to strike a personal cord inside me, perhaps because most of the material is well-known in the scientific tradition. He is a great teacher for making science publicly accessible but there are very little original insights here; however, as a collective, unified exercise, this whole concept of exploring 'edges' of the known/ unknown divide is very useful and original. Recommended for disciples of Dawkins and other radical newbies.
Profile Image for Ken Parker.
25 reviews
June 25, 2017
An awe-inspiring journey through some of the boundaries of our knowledge today. While a self-described atheist, du Sautoy seems to endorse the idea/potential for God as a transcendent force outside our reality. Visited seven edges:
Read 06/16/2017 while on Oregon vacation

1. Edge 1. Chaos. Small changes in starting conditions can have enormous changes in results. We cannot have precise knowledge of everything (down to electron positions throughout the universe.) Everything is connected.
2. Edge 2. Matter. Is it continuous or discrete? Are quarks the smallest or is matter further divisible? Unsure. Amazing journey of exploration and discovery. Great symmetry in nature. Allows strong predictions. Current quark model seems to be complete but unknown below that.
3. Edge 3. Quantum Physics. It is completely random (e.g. Radioactive decay). No determinism. Observation can inhibit the progress of a quantum system. The past is also a superposition of possibilities that only crystallize once they are observed. The act of measuring seems to determine the properties of a particle. Einstein called Quantum entanglement "spooky action at a distance".
4. Edge 4. The Universe. Can we use light to determine the curvature of the universe and whether it is finite or infinite. The universe is expanding. (Due to dark energy). One implication, galaxies we could see are going to be pushed beyond the the edge of what we can see. Eventually, only our galaxy will be visible. Currently, we believe 18b light years is the cosmic horizon limiting our observations.
1. Don't currently have a good way to explain the ~20 constants of nature that allow life to exist. Multiverse is one potential explanation- there are a bunch and ours happened to be right.
2. John Barrow, Cambridge professor - won the Templeton Prize (connecting science and religion). Studies limits of our knowledge. Check out his books. Can never prove a theory is correct, only that it is incorrect.
3. Key question- is the universe finite or infinite?
5. Edge 5. Time.
1. Two bodies moving a different speeds relative to one another will both sense that the other's clock is moving slowly. Must think about an integrated concept, space-time. Special relativity.
2. Impossible to tell the difference between gravity and acceleration. Same effects. Big implication: high gravity slows time, just like acceleration does. General relativity: gravity and acceleration are woven into space-time. Basically, things with MASS.
3. Heisenberg stated that both position and momentum cannot be precisely determined - one or the other. Same with time and energy - choose one.
4. Roger Penrose- imagined model of Bib Bang being a continuous connection of universe expanding, followed by contracting. Each cycle called an eon
5. KP: what if black holes are the seeds of a new universe that will be launched (and continue to expand)?
6. Edge 6. Consciousness. Have been trying to understand for centuries. Only with recent tools has our understanding started to grow quickly. In past, structural damage allowed people to see effects. Two hemispheres seem to be somewhat independent maybe redundant. fMRI and EEG are the tools used but they assume homogeneity among brains.
1. EEG measures electrical activity in the brain by recording voltage fluctuations from electrical currents among regions of brain. There are 5 speeds of waves that are associated with different brain activity.
1. Delta waves. 1-4 Hz. Deep, dreamless sleep
2. Theta waves. 4-8 Hz. Light sleep or meditation
3. Alpha waves. 8-12 Hz. Relaxed wakefulness
4. Beta waves. 13-30 Hz. Wide awake
5. Gamma waves. 30-70 Hz. Formation of ideas, language and memory processing and various types of learning.
2. fMRI detects changes in blood oxygenation in brain areas. Oxygenated blood is more magnetic.
3. Fun little experiment: look through paper tube with one eye and look at far off object with both eyes. Will see a hole in your hand.
4. Look up McGurk effect on YouTube. See face making sounds but you won't hear them because they switched the soundtrack.
5. Look up Ehrsson experiment with a fake hand and real hand behind a screen. Stroke fake and real hands simultaneously and people will start to believe it's their own hand.
6. Mind-body problem. Is consciousness separate from our physical body?
7. Networks that are tightly connected but differentiated. High symmetry seems to not be associated with consciousness. Lots of feedback and connectivity is good. Key structural elements: connectivity, feedback, differentiation.
8. Consciousness seems to be nonlinear, like a phase transition- all or none, not gradual. Does this mean that our attempts to create a computer consciousness will not be rewarded with partial success (an idiot but conscious)?
7. Edge 7. Infinity.
1. Gödel proved that mathematics is not free of contradictions. Mathematics is open to falsification. In any system, there must be true formulas that are neither provable or disprovable. Corollary: the consistency of a logical system cannot be proved within that system.
2. Georg Cantor - 1890's, did work with infinity to show that different infinities are equal. E.g. Whole numbers and fractions. Did it by matching things up and showing you didn't run out. There are infinite infinities. The mathematical establishment of the day shunned him.
3. Does Gödel's incompleteness theorem mean we cannot know some of these things since we are inside the system? You cannot step outside the system to prove it because the theorem is an infinite regress...
4. Does a transcendent God stand outside the system? By making God flesh, are we trying to make the unknowable knowable? That seems counter to the concept of God.
9. Summary.
1. It is possible that we cannot know because we are stuck within the system we seek to understand.
2. Our physical limitations will place boundaries on our knowledge.
3. "The trouble with most religions is that the God that is served has so many properties that have nothing to do with the definition."
4. Frederic Fitch. Paradox of unknowability: "Unless you know it all, there will always be truths that are by their nature unknowable."
5. Stephen Hawking: "The greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance but the illusion of knowledge."
Profile Image for Chuck Noren.
29 reviews2 followers
April 21, 2017
Excellent book. Intended audience, layperson with an interest in mathematics and science. Marcus du Sautoy is a renowned mathematician who looks at 7 areas of knowledge that mathematicians and scientists don't know. I liked how hear clearly explained topics in mathematics and physics.

Wherever Dr. du Sautoy dealt with topics close to mathematics, he was excellent. Other areas, in partucilar, consciousness, was too hazy, almost too pop-science. If the reader listens to a few Brain Science podcasts by Virginia Campbell, they'll get better, more solid information about this topic.

While Dr. du Sautoy is an atheist, he exhibits a gentlemanly respect for others who hold various religious views. I find that refreshing (now I am biased because I am a confessional Reformed Evangelical Christian). In philosophy, I think Dr. du Sautoy did a reasonable job. But he takes a narrow slice among his Oxford friends. There are others to explore, such as Alvin Plantinga.

On the topic of the multiverse, there are some issues dealing with infinities that, in my opinion (not that it's worth much), should be examined. One is the issue of what would be a typical observer in an infinite multiverse across all time. Ludwig Boltzmann raised the issue that we would be far from typical observers that we'd expect in a multiverse.

Overall, the book was excellent. I enjoyed it very much.
October 5, 2016
A Mind Blowing Book.

The scope of this book brings together the current thinking in many disciplines from physics, philosophy, mathematics, cosmology, neurobiology etc, in a structured, well researched and authoritative narrative which seeks to explain the boundaries of human knowledge.
Profile Image for amberle.
336 reviews10 followers
July 29, 2017
interessante, non scontato, scritto in un linguaggio abbastanza semplice ma certo non semplicistico, porta anche in luce le opinioni degli "addetti ai lavori".
consigliatissimo ai grandi curiosi.
Profile Image for Baby Adam.
50 reviews
October 24, 2016
Marcus du Sautoy takes the reader on a journey to the edges of current human knowledge. Most of the chapters are dedicated to physics, and provide a refreshing account of many different topics, with excellent thought-provoking explanations. I particularly enjoyed his explanation of the "many aeons" interpretation of the universe, in which the big bang is "glued" to the heat-death of the universe at which time all matter becomes energy and the notion of distance becomes meaningless.

The section on neuroscience was fascinating. He drew me in with some fun experiments and weird wonders of the brain, and provided some really cool case studies of people whose brain had effectively been split in half. I would definitely like to read more popular neuroscience, having had my appetite whet. I managed not to embarrass myself in talking about the book with my neuroscientist husband either, which is a big positive. #aliegroupisacircle

The final chapter was, inevitably, dedicated to mathematics. After a fun account of problems such as Gödel's incompleteness theorems, which roughly say that within any system of axioms, there are always going to be things you can't prove, and moreover, you can't know that you can't prove them. There is some good philosophical discussion at the end, and a real sense of having been on quite an extensive journey.

This book was a gift from my darling husband, and then I received a second copy from Baby Hair's mum! It shows how much I love Marcus du Sautoy. I look forward to when my husband reads this, and we can discuss all the fun details!
Profile Image for Paul.
29 reviews1 follower
July 27, 2017
Marcus du Sautoy is the new Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science, at Oxford University, taking over from Richard Dawkins. Overall I enjoyed it. Although i thought he spent quite a lot of time going over the general history of science, or at least some of the major events. He does eventually get to the hardcore questions of 'what is knowable' mathematically and logically, which is what I was really interested in, but only in the last few chapters.
246 reviews
July 29, 2018
Pretty good.
Quite readable - *if* you already have some knowledge of things like Relativity and the Planck Length and mathematical proofs, etc.. I'm not sure how much you would get out of it without any of that.
It ends up being vague and wishy-washy on its stated goal of determining "What We Cannot Know" (which is the book's title in Britain).
Profile Image for Nicholas.
207 reviews20 followers
March 28, 2018
He's certainly a gifted communicator. And although the path he treads here is not exactly unbeaten, he manages to find novel ways to enlighten, clarify and entertain. His explanation of special relativity using Pythagoras is brilliant and just one example of many.
Profile Image for Lance.
244 reviews7 followers
December 11, 2016
"I have always been extremely unsettled by things I cannot know. Things I cannot work out. I don't mind not knowing provided there is some way to ultimately work it out."

This is a very important book. Uniting the disciplines within science and seeing all the sciences as a coherent formation against the boundaries of knowledge is an important viewpoint missing from much of popular literature. Chemistry flows seamlessly into physics, scientists and mathematicians collaborate, and big data and mathematical modelling have become staples of all the sciences. I think that having books like these will help break down popularly held stereotypes about individual sciences and increase the breadth of knowledge that every person of scientific mind should strive for.
The book is split into seven sections, each tackling a set of questions which faces science today. The first is the world of probability, which has been developed to help us understand the outcomes of chaotic systems. This is a cool bit of science which spans from meteorology to evolution and benefits from a mathematician's perspective with the awesome up to date study from Kapitaniak et al. He then moves on to particle theory and the awesome chemists Mendelev, JJ Thomson and Rutherford who between ordered the substances of the natural world, cracked the weirdness of electricity, and revealed the internal structure of the atom. I love to see chemists getting their credit! From here he flows into the glitchy random world of quantum dymanics (a field on the boundary of both physics and chemistry). "Quantum physics isn't about knowing answers to old questions, it's about challenging the questions we are allowed to ask." I enjoyed reading about the discovery of muons and quarks, the mind-blowing wave-particle duality was well captured by du Sautoy, and I particularly enjoyed Melissa Franklin who embodies the scientist's passionate fascination with further learning almost regardless of legacy, purpose, or fruitfulness. She was cool. After a diversion from Heisenberg's mind-bending work, the narrative engaged in the large-scale wonders of the universe. I was interested to read that the accelerating expansion of the universe has now been resolved, this may be the first book published since Carl Sagan's Cosmos which prioritised this awesome question. The Einsteinian special relativity was well-written and important, but fell a bit flat as I was already very familiar with the concepts. More interesting was the perspective of eccentric genius Roger Penrose, I was fascinated by his hypothesis of aeons based on the idea that the concept of space and therefore time has no meaning when the universe eventually loses all of its matter and decays into energy only. The final chapter, which prioritised the mathematics of infinity was slightly disappointing as the most recent mathematics discussed, that of Cantor, is still around a century old and I was hoping for something fresh and juicy from the journals to take advantage of du Sautoy's insider knowledge of maths.
The sixth section, that which attempts to chart consciousness, was unfortunately overambitious. Consciousness is a multi-disciplinary research questions, which embraces neuroscience, psychology, evolutionary biology, computer science, philosophy, and contributions from many other fields each of which could fill a whole volume with its own discreet conclusions. So, two chapters was always going to be a push. I was gratified to see that du Sautoy oriented his attack on consciousness from a neuroscience perspective, as the life sciences are rarely represented alongside physics in the same popular book despite the great overlap between skill-sets. And yet, it was immediately apparent that du Sautoy's research for this chapter was limited. He begins with an account of brain structure and approximate function of gross anatomical areas. This is very confused. I don't know where he got the information for this section, but it was not laid out with the clarity or authority that Susan Greenfield or Cordelia Fine bring to their popular neuroscience works. He talks about the left and right hemisphere, when he means the left and right hemisphere of neocortex only (the relations of deeper brain structures to hemisphericity are more complex), and cites the corpus callosum as a "bottleneck" of communication between the two hemispheres of the brain. As a processional developmental neuroscientist, this tells me that he has hasn't done his basic homework. His reading list at the back of the book includes no basic neuroscience texts which would have cleared up these misunderstandings, a quick browse of Eric Kandel's seminar work Principles in Neural Science would have been well advised. For example, such a book would have been able to explain that the hemisphere structure of the brain is almost certainly an evolutionary continuation of the bilaterally symmetrical body plan and that the cortical specialisation arose much later in mammalian evolution. Check it out. Symmetry is extremely efficient for all life forms. Perhaps his time would have been better spent here than pursuing fMRI scans and EEGs. Although these methods still retain a certain space-age charm to the technology, these are established clinical tools for probing gross anatomy and brains functions. I would have been more impressed if du Sautoy took the time to explain electrophysiology, a set of techniques from the 1800s which formed the foundations of our understanding of the neurone, or ventured into the cutting edge of optogenetics, the technique developed by Gero Meisenboeck which uses light to activate or silence neurone individually or in populations. Following EEG to Harvard, du Sautoy interviews sleep researcher Guillio Tononi. I found his description of phi as a measure of consciousness through complexity of the connections within a system highly relevant and impressively clear for a non-expert. However, he then goes on to make a schoolboy error! When providing experimental evidence to back this up, he describes sleep as an "unconscious" state, which is not true according to all scientific definitions of consciousness. Sleeping people can still respond to their environments is stimuli are strong enough, and show the gamma waves (neural activity that is the signature of alertness) through the thalamus and much of the brain. So sleeping humans do not lose their consciousness. Also, Vyasovskiy and Harris' 2013 review described low-phi sleep waves present in local areas of the brain throughout wakefulness, and, amazingly, less complex electrophysiological activity occurs when a mouse undertakes a routine motor activity such as running in a wheel than during low-phi sleep. So is the mouse less conscious while running than it is when it is asleep? It is a great shame that du Sautoy did not take the opportunity to interview Vlad Vyasovskiy for this book, given that Vlad is currently working in Oxford across the road from the Maths Institute ... Even better, he could have picked the miraculous brain of Ray Guillery, whose inspirational book Exploring the Thalamus contains predictions of several amazing consequences of complex neural networks which mathematical biologists and mathematical philosophers such as Karl Friston are only now beginning to validate and fully understand. The amazing Ray Guillery would also have been an excellent proof-reader for this chapter and prevented the small misunderstanding from going to print. du Sautoy salvages the chapter with a couple of excellent interviews with Christof Koch (not he of the fractals) who introduces some clarity to the story of phi, the human connectome, and the ability to download a brain using current computer technology. It's a shame that du Sautoy couldn't get in touch with a research computer scientist who could have spoken to him about the potential for quantum computing to overcome the determinism of contemporary computing technology, as well as the transistor connections problem. A really good effort, and I really appreciate the representation, I do, but I feel that time Marcus borders on giving misinformation.
I was mightily unimpressed with the spirituality sections which occupied the end of every section and dominated the conclusions. I felt that his definition of God as "what we cannot know" lacked meaning. Why equate these two concepts at all? I might as well chose to define God as the total information content of the universe, or inside the event horizon of a black hole, but that doesn't mean that I have somehow accessed meaning through this definition. du Sautoy rejects God as a figure of love and forgiveness, but make no comment on other more objective connotations of throwing the word "God" around, such as God's role as creator or God's sentience. I find assertions about God which have no conclusion about his/her/their/its role in the creation of the universe fairly flaccid. Also, the interviews with religious scientists seemed purely apologistic for Richard Dawkin's strong atheist views. Polkinghorn, the quantum reverend, spouted some stuff about chaos theory as the site of God's action, a field he does not even work in. And then there is Barrow, who says nothing that I disagree with but merely shrouds his belief behind uncertainty. I am interested in religion, and I know and respect many religious scientists, but I do not think du Sautoy was well-versed in the philosophy and I feel that the inclusion of religion was ultimately disjoined within this particular book. So that's there the other star went, the one that wasn't lost in the neuroscience section.
As usual, Marcus du Sautoy's greatest strength is his elegant and playful prose. His facility with language makes him an ideal communicator of complex scientific ideas, and his colourful interdisciplinary metaphors are an exciting medium through which to tell scientific tales. Anyone who uses the verb "ossify" as a metaphor for stagnation of social progress and includes quotations from Tom Stoppard's Arcadia, one of my all time favourite plays, as well as Jorg Luis Borges The Library of Babel is creating some seriously classy popular science. Despite this, imagine my chagrin when du Sautoy began to use the word "schizophrenic" to describe, what? Mixed motives? Ambiguity? I found this metaphor quite inappropriate. However, it's not only scholarly prose that grips in this book. There is also du Sautoy's sense of humour which includes cultural references from Reservoir Dogs to lame Christmas cracker jokes. An exemplary writer, and I hope that his retirement from the Simonyi professorship does not stop him writing.
"Science is king. Science is giving us unprecedented insights into some of the big questions that have challenged humanity ever since we have been able to formulate them."
Profile Image for Sujith Ravindran.
47 reviews20 followers
April 4, 2021
What we cannot know is an incredibly fascinating book authored by Marcus du Sautoy. Sautoy is a Mathematics Professor at Oxford University. The central theme of this book is to explore the limits of our knowledge in understanding our nature and true self.

Sautoy has tried to explore this theme by choosing several edges like: Is it possible to predict the future of casino dice? Whether we can know the smallest particle? Is there a beginning to time? What constitutes our consciousness? and so on...

Sautoy shows us that mathematics can be used a powerful tool for finding answers. But, there are limitations or edges beyond which knowledge seems to be inaccessible. Perhaps, our languages are not capable of precisely articulating mathematical proofs.

Our major constraint is we are stuck within the system and trying to understand the system by staying inside. Quantum experiments have proven that we cannot repeat the same experiment exactly because we are unable to isolate the experiment from the universe. Further how can we not be sure that we are fooled by our senses.

"It is wrong to think that the task of physics is to find out how nature is. Physics concerns what we can say about nature". Niels Bohr

So I think we may live in a world of realities (could be even fantasies) created by our limited knowledge. True knowledge will remain hidden and perhaps unknown.

"The greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance, but the illusion of knowledge" Stephen Hawking.
26 reviews
February 22, 2022
Heel interessant boek. Bij het zoeken naar wat we niet (kunnen) weten is er veel uitleg over wat we net wel weten. Boeiend.
Profile Image for Carmel-by-the-Sea.
120 reviews16 followers
January 18, 2020
Nauka jest wyjątkową aktywnością człowieka. Jej siłą jest ciągła zmienność przedmiotu badań i osiągniętego stopnia poznania. Podstawowy błąd, który czasem popełnia się w przypisywanych jej celach, da się wysłowić parafrazując powiedzenie Bohra: 'zadaniem nauki nie jest ustalenie, jaki jest świat, tylko badanie tego, co da się o nim powiedzieć'.

Marcus du Sautoy to matematyk, który od kilku lat zajmuje oksfordzką katedrę zwolnioną przez Dawkinsa. Każdy profesor ją obejmujący ma za zadanie popularyzować osiągnięcia nauki w społeczeństwie. "To, czego się nie dowiemy. Badanie granic nauki" jest publikacją, która w sposób przystępny stara się ująć w ramy zakres dociekań naukowców. Książka podzielona jest na siedem grup problemów, które wydają się stanowić nieprzekraczalne bariery poznania. Większość dotyczy fizycznych i astronomicznych ograniczeń, choć jest i rozdział o mózgu i świadomości oraz o współczesnych granicach matematyki.

Z lektury książki wyłania się jednoznaczny wniosek, który można wysłowić krótko - wszystkie aktualnie zdiagnozowane granice naukowe mają swoje źródło w nieskończoności. Niczemu w otaczającym nas świecie nie możemy przypisać wprost cechy nieskończoności, a i nasz umysł z tym pojęciem sobie nie radzi. Du Sautoy pokazuje, że doświadczany przez nas świat jest nieprzewidywalny, bo nie dysponujemy pełną (nieskończenie dokładną) informacją o wszystkich elementach opisywanych zjawisk. Stąd pojawia się chaos, jako nieuchronność tej niewiedzy. Na poziomie mikroświata nieprzekraczalnymi granicami są zdumiewające efekty kwantowe i nieoznaczoność Heisenberga (świetne podsumowanie niesłabnącego zdumienia badaczy zjawiskami subatomowymi opisał autor na str. 176-190). Czy materię można dzielić na dowolnie małe elementy, czy jest dyskretna? W kolejnej granicy matematyk pochylił się nad kosmologią i naszą niewiedzą o globalnym statusie Wszechświata - czy jest skończony, czy ma granice, czy czas ma cechy kontinuum jak punkty na prostej, a może jest jednak dyskretny? Przedostatni rozdział zawiera krótkie zreferowanie stanu badań nad mózgiem pod kątem pojęcia świadomości, jak fenomenu wciąż wymykającego się jednoznacznemu opisaniu. Końcowe strony to wspaniały przegląd matematycznych zmagań z fundamentalnymi problemami różnych typów nieskończoności i dwudziestowiecznych ustaleń Kurta Gödla (str. 475-481), które i królową nauki pozbawiły stuprocentowej pewności co do niesprzeczności zbudowanego systemu struktur logicznych.

Du Sautoy, jako długoletni dydaktyk i popularyzator, barwnym językiem i bez niepotrzebnych detali unaocznia jednoznacznie, że być może świat nigdy nie zostanie w pełni i satysfakcjonująco opisany językiem nauki, to jednak wciąż poszerzamy zakres możliwych pytań. Naukowców napędza nie ułuda możliwego pełnego zrozumienia, ale proces wykonywania pracy umysłowej i wydzieranie przyrodzie kolejnych tajemnicy. Kluczowy jest samo tworzenie a nie mglisty cel. Opisane grupy granic poznania są różnego typu. We wszystkich istotnym ograniczeniem jest badacz - człowiek, jako element układu badawczego i nasze ludzkie przywiązanie do racjonalizacji i antropomorfizacji. Chyba najbardziej nieprzekraczalna wydaje się bariera kwantowa, gdzie brak wiedzy nie ma natury epistemologicznej, lecz ontologiczną, co stawia nas w beznadziejnej sytuacji. Skoro Feynman powiedział, że "nikt nie rozumie fizyki kwantowej", to być może nie warto przesadnie starać się rozumem ogarnąć jej nieprzystawalność do dostępnego nam świata, tylko stosować jej ścisłe formuły, na których zbudowana jest współczesna technologia.

Autor sporo miejsca poświęcił na przedyskutowanie pewnych metafizycznych konsekwencji pojawiających się czasem w zmaganiach z rzeczywistością. Wspomniał o transcendencji; ze zrozumieniem i uwagą przyjął do wiadomości wiarę niektórych naukowców. Rozmowa z kosmologiem Johnem Barrowem i fizykiem Johnem Polkinghorne dotyczyła istniejącej narracji, która nieznanemu przypisuje pewne cechy boskości, choć w wymiarze dalekim od płytkich i popularnych społecznych odczytań.

"To, czego się nie dowiemy" obfituje w liczne przykłady poważnych pytań bez odpowiedzi. Jednak zaraźliwy optymizm autora, snucie opowieści ze swadą sprawiają, że lektura wydała mi się raczej przyjemnością, nie zmaganiem z trudnym tematem. Du Sautoy przez zabawę sięga do naszych ludzkich ograniczeń, chociażby w prologu ostatniego rozdziału, gdzie opisuje żart prowadzący do paradoksu głębokiej natury - na dwóch stronach kartki piszemy po jednym zdaniu (str. 451):

"Stwierdzenie po drugiej stronie kartki jest fałszywe."
"Stwierdzenie po drugiej stronie kartki jest prawdziwe."

Takich wstawek różnej natury w książce jest dużo. Matematyk zachęca do trenowania szarych komórek, do odwracania problemów, oglądania zjawisk nietypowo i do bycia dociekliwym. Pomaga odnaleźć się laikowi w gąszczu istotnych ograniczeń naukowej natury, które przyjęte z pokorą dają radość z samego faktu ich poznawania.

Gorąco zachęcam każdego do lektury.

Profile Image for Alec Kerrigan.
16 reviews
February 22, 2018
Seriously one the best pop-sci books I have ever read.

Rather than simply a dry explanation of concepts of infinity and Godel's theorems, it reads more like a journey for the author itself. So much information and concepts are packed into such a small package that will simultaneously satisfy you while leaving yearning to learn more on your own.
Profile Image for Pete Harris.
243 reviews9 followers
December 17, 2016
Everything is brilliant (and weirder than you could possibly imagine)

Take one. There is a Paul Whitehouse character in the Fast Show, called "Brilliant Kid" who wanders round a variety of landscapes exclaiming "Everything is brilliant". Reading this book made me want to do the same thing.

Take two. There is a strand of speculative fiction, of which China Mieville is a leading proponent, referred to as the "New Weird". This book suggests that they haven't even got close to emulating the actual weirdness of the universe around us.

The central premise of the book is that author Marcus du Sautoy is seeking to understand the limits of what we know, to stand at the boundary of human knowledge and gaze into the abyss of what we don't know. Is it infinite, or are we close to the other side, will it be possible to understand everything?

While he does indeed ponder these questions, the real meat of the book, and what makes it awe inspiring, compelling, thrilling, is his exploration of what lies on this side of the boundary, a lot of the time, only just on this side.

The book is divided into seven sections, referred to by du Sautoy as "edges" (of knowledge or understanding). These are, in terms of the underlying themes:-

Probability, chaos theory and fractals. Unknown outcomes from a fully defined starting position.

Particle physics - can we know if there is another layer of reality below the current understanding of the fundamental building blocks of the universe.

Quantum mechanics. This is, of course where things start getting seriously weird. In a quantum universe particles appear out of nothing. Combining Heisenberg's uncertainty principle with the speed of light being an absolute speed limit on the universe seems to imply that space is granular not continuous. Particles on opposite sides of the universe seem to know what each other are doing.

Relativity, and can we know whether the universe is finite or infinite.

More Relativity, and the nature of time.

What is consciousness.

Finally, and as a person with a degree in hard sums, I was waiting for this, Gödel's incompleteness theorem which basically states that either a mathematical system will contradict itself or it will contain statements which can neither be proved or disproved. Du Sautoy prepares the ground for this right at the start of the book by rehabilitating Donald Rumsfeldt's words, though not the man himself. There are indeed known unknowns etc etc. What I wasn't ready for is the thought that just as geometry has stepped beyond Euclid, so the prospect has been raised that there may be different systems of mathematics. Just wow!!

The only niggle I have with what is a thrilling (and I genuinely mean that about this science book), engaging, mind massaging book is both slightly surprising and, with a little thought, entirely predictable. Du Sautoy is at his hardest to follow when he is talking about his own subject, mathematics. It is as if he finds it easier to understand the lay reader's needs when he is not on his own ground.

That said, this is a book in which the author shows he is admirably meeting the requirements of his role as Siminyoni Chair for the Public Understanding of Science.
194 reviews2 followers
March 11, 2018
I found this book interesting but quite hard going- more my fault than the authors I suspect.
Profile Image for David.
25 reviews19 followers
February 16, 2018
The first 5 stars books of this year. A very complete compendium of the state of knowledge in different areas of science. Only for the "paradox of the unknownability", attributed to logician Alonzo Church, the book is worth reading. Marcus du Sautoy is among the best science writers today.
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