From Quarks to Black Holes and Back

Marcus de Sautoy: Ce que nous ne saurons jamais (English title: What We Cannot Know, translation by Raymond Clarinard) ISBN 978-2-35087-405-0 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ Warning: If you don’t like abstract thinking, don’t buy this book. If you cringe at the sight of an even simple mathematical formula, don’t start reading this book. If you think an electron is a weapon from “Star Wars”, stick to science fiction and don’t loose you time pretending to read this book. Nobody will believe you anyway. However, if none of the above is true and if you are interested in the limits of human knowledge, in questions about the (in)finity of the universe, the place of God in cosmology or the prelude to the Big Bang, then and only then, do read this book.

The book is well written. It is well researched. It does not shy away from controversial discussions, absurd conclusions and highly hypothetical models of what was, is and will be. It offers a contradicting look into the past and a fuzzy view of the future slong with a disputed assessment of the present. It is full of facts about theories, theories about so-called facts, formulas and though experiments and entertaining jokes.

“What We Cannot Know” is written by a mathematician, who plays the trumpet (rather well it would appear) and the cello (not so well, if we believe de Sautoy). De Sautoy is an official atheist obsessed by his dice and the question of God. This alone sounds promising and makes it worthwhile to hear what he has to say. I shall not attempt to write a synopsis of this book. I would have to rewrite it, which would make no sense at all, would it? I will just enumerate a few topics from a scientist’s everyday life about which humanity knows little and about which it will perhaps never know everything.

The subdivision of the atom for instance: protons, neutrons, electrons and, one level deeper, the quarks. Easy stuff. Unknown and unimaginable some 100 years ago. Can we go deeper and divide matter even further? Can we smash the quark and “look” inside to see what’s in there and what holds it together? We don’t quite know how much we (don’t) know. Space is next. It expands with unequal speed. Why? For how long already? Will it contract at some point? We can’t say. Is it infinite? Some say humanity is inherently unable to answer that question.

What about time? Since we cannot prove it, we BELIEVE that time started to come into existence at some point, but will it ever end? And how exactly did it come into existence? Some respected researchers believe that time is an illusion, just as others believe that any form of “confirmed” knowledge is an illusion. Science is what happens after we have proved that one theory is wrong and before we publish a new one. Or so it would seem.

How about aliens – should we look for them? If there is some kind of intelligent life in outer space different from ours, we should expect it to be more developed. SETI might be a risky bet. Do we really want to meet something more clever than us? Finally conscience. What is it? Where is it located in the brain? How does it start? Can it transcend death? Or be emulated by Artificial Intelligence? We don’t know. In a more general way, our brain and the way it works are one of the biggest mysteries of all. I think, therefore I am, you may say with René Descartes. Really? But who is I? Think about it. Cogito, sed sum?

We know so little despite 10,000 years of scientific research, religious experiences and philosophical debates. We strive to gain insight, instead we discover the dimension of our ignorance, the limits of our thinking. De Sautoy takes the reader on an exciting trip through the history of science and into its possible future, showing us the known unknowns and trying to figure out ways to identify unknown unknowns.

“What We Cannot Know” is one of those books that I had been looking for for a long time, and it was not me who found it. The book rather found me, since I did buy it initially not for myself. Once I had started to read it, I had a hard time to put it down. Understanding how knowledge grows and why in certain areas we fail, is truly fascinating. Realizing that this question cannot be dissociated from the question of God (or any other supposed Creator) makes it even more interesting. A delight for an armchair philosopher like me!

De Sautoy was once asked which piece of music he would like to be able to play, and he chose Johann Sebastian Bach’s cello suites. An excellent choice since Bach’s music is full of intricate maths:

Resting body and soul in Bach’s geometry