The Great Unknown: Marcelo Gleiser and the Limits of Science

We must recognise that because of the very nature of human inquiry every age has its unknowables. The question we need to address, then, is whether certain unknowables are here to stay or whether they can be dealt with in due course. Must every question have an answer?

— Marcelo Gleiser

Picture an island. The ocean, in all directions, stretches to the horizon. The island is what we know and understand of the universe. The ocean recedes and advances unevenly around the coastline as we learn more, subsuming what turned out to be false and revealing new land when a new “truth” is affirmed. This is the central metaphor in Marcelo Gleiser‘s endlessly fascinating The Island of Knowledge: The Limits of Science and the Search for Meaning (Basic Books, 2014). In this free-ranging, accessible account of what we know, how we came to know it, and what we can maybe never know, Gleiser reveals wonders both cosmic and quantum. Although its subtitle, “The Limits of Science and the Search for Meaning,” may sound defeatist, The Island of Knowledge is instead inspiring. It’s a tribute to the extraordinary enterprise of the world’s scientists and philosophers over the last few millennia. It’s a paean to our boundless capacity for awe. And, in its closing pages, it’s a celebration of limitation as something that might in fact be intrinsically human.

Tycho Brahe, 1546-1601

The book is split in three: “The Origin of the World and the Nature of the Heavens”; “From Alchemy to the Quantum: The Elusive Nature of Reality”; and “Mind and Meaning.” In the first part, Gleiser takes us on a historical journey. We meet the earliest astronomer-philosophers, observing the skies with just the naked eye, and are acquainted with current theories surrounding multiverses and the origins and future of the universe. We see how science — the investigation and description of the world through testable hypotheses — was born of observation. The series of conceptual shifts regarding the nature of celestial bodies began with the Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe, who spent three decades measuring the movement of plants with nothing but “quadrants, sextants, astrolabes, and other instruments.” His measurements were enough for Johannes Kepler to demonstrate that the orbit of Mars is elliptical. “Few examples in the history of science,” Gleiser suggests, “illustrate so clearly the power of high-precision data as a catalyst for a revolutionary shift in our collective worldview.” Kepler’s suspicion that the movement of the Sun and the planets was due to a kind of magnetism laid the conceptual groundwork for Newton’s “discovery” of gravity. Galileo played a part, too, with his demonstration that objects of different masses fall at the same rate. Newton then arrived

as the great unifier, the man who ties the physics of the Earth with that of the heavens. He shows that both Galileo’s law of free fall and Kepler’s laws of planetary motion are, in effect, the same, as he expressed in his law of universal gravity.

The New York Times, 10 November 1919

The telescope and its twin, the microscope, offered new ways of looking at the world and gave rise to exciting new theories. Then the dawn of the twentieth century brought with it another great revolution in thought. Einstein’s theory of special relativity changed how we think about time and space. His work is now the basis of our understanding of the origins and possible future of the universe. The work of Stephen Hawking from the 1960s on has led to the widely accepted notion that the universe must have begun as a singularity. Others’ work on cosmic inflation — the period of rapid expansion of the universe following the Big Bang — and multiverses (possible alternative or additional universes) brings us to where we are now in our knowledge. The further we’ve come, the more we know we don’t know. And in multiverses, we arguably butt up against a logical unknowable, as that which exists beyond our own universe is necessarily unmeasurable. But is that the end of the story?

Consistent with the notion that the Universe has been expanding since its beginnings is the notion that in the distant past it was very small — so small, in fact, that the rules of quantum physics had to determine its overall behavior.

The Earth, as seen from Apollo 8 (Image: NASA)

Part II tells the story of our enduring fascination with the very essence of things. Democritus, who believed that “truth is in the depths,” intuited that knowledge of the most fundamental sort lay beyond his purview. Alchemists’ obsession with transformation belied an overwhelming need to understand those fundaments. The advent of quantum physics represented a major advance in our understanding of essence. As a narrative, it describes the very small, “a reality quite distinct from our own.” We see that the so-called “classical” worldview is no more than an approximation: Newtonian physics may be adequate for describing large bodies, but it’s insufficient at a quantum level. The work of Ernest Rutherford and Niels Bohr in describing the atom was an essential first step. Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle demonstrated how we cannot know simultaneously the velocity and position of a particle, pulling the rug out from those in the scientific community who hoped that quantum physics might provide a (crypto-religious) description of causation and order in the world. “Strictly speaking,” Gleiser writes, “the act of measurement gives reality to what is being measured, bringing it from the netherworld of quantum potentialities to the concrete world of detection and sensorial perception.” This conclusion is a philosophical nightmare. If the act of observation affects measurement, what are the ontological implications? If we cannot see the Moon, is it still there? Quantum mechanics, Gleiser concludes, “forces us to confront the unknowable head-on.”

In Part III, we visit questions epistemological. In the discovery and formalisation of mathematics, we see how science and faith overlap in their aims. Patterns in nature led to the belief that reality might be “the handiwork of invisible purveyors of regularity [… and thus] the origin of things is always associated with the emergence of order, with or without a divine hand to guide it.” Mathematics, in providing the language of physics, attained a particularly lionized position in the scientific pantheon. But knowledge is only ever partial, even in a science as pure as math. As Gödel and Turing found, “mathematics as a formal structure is not complete, it is not consistent, and it is not decidable.” Despite the money pouring into schemes like the Human Brain Project, can algorithms really be used to simulate human brain activity? And if they can’t, does this point to the existence of some other force or impulse? A soul, even?

Marcelo Gleiser’s is “a view of open-ended pursuit, not of envisioned ends.” As he suggests, science can be reduced to narratives that best reflect the knowledge of the day. We can’t necessarily know the extent of what we don’t know. The enormous scientific advances of the last few centuries have opened up countless avenues of research, and this is, in Gleiser’s view, enough. “Awe,” he says, “is the bridge between our past and our present, taking us forward into the future as we keep on searching.” It’s arguably a lesson we all learned as children: pleasure lies more in the coveting than the having.

You can see Marcelo Gleiser at our next Seriously Entertaining show, Inside the Lie, at City Winery on September 29. Buy tickets here. Also featuring: Natalie Haynes, John Guare, Gail Sheehy, and Andrew Solomon. You can buy Gleiser’s The Island of Knowledge, and other books he’s written, at McNally Jackson.

Follow Marcelo Gleiser on Twitter.

The Sea, Inside & Out

Seeing “the watery part of the world” was, for Melville’s Ishmael, a way of “driving off the spleen and regulating the circulation.” One feels it’s probably the same for Philip Hoare. Five years ago, his terrific Leviathan, or The Whale (published in the US as The Whale: In Search of the Giants of the Sea) won the BBC Samuel Johnson Prize for nonfiction. He’s followed it up with another maritime adventure, The Sea Inside — published, appropriately, by the Brooklyn-based Melville House. Between times, he co-curated the Moby Dick Big Read, a series of podcasts featuring everyone from Tilda Swinton to Sir David Attenborough and Benedict Cumberbatch to Fiona Shaw, reading the book chapter by chapter. You could say Hoare loves a whale.

Which is why it might come as a surprise to fans of Leviathan that it takes so long for any cetaceans to appear in The Sea Inside. (Like Moby-Dick, actually, at the risk of spoilers.) But fear not! Hoare’s latest is just as magical as his last, and in fact this time round I was easily as roused by the other members of his menagerie, in particular the birds. He has a great eye for social detail. Did you know that the eurasian osytercatcher can live to be forty or more? Or that crows mourn their dead as passionately as whales and elephants? Or, less dramatically, that ten percent of the world’s population of brent geese winters in Southampton? Conscious of his desire to impose human characteristics on his subjects, he is nonetheless unable to stop doing so. Take one of the most fascinating of genera, corvus, which includes magpies, birds that “recognise themselves in the mirror, suggesting a sense of individual identity”; rooks, which “will support their fellow birds after a fight in a manner which in humans we would not hesitate to call sympathetic”; and the carrion crow, which will “place nuts on a pedestrian crossing for cars to crack, and wait for the red light to retrieve its meal.” Like the animals in Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf, so exquisitely distinguished by their different instrumentation, Hoare’s avifauna are revealed to us with personalities intact.

As well as a work of natural history, The Sea Inside is a great travelogue. Hoare starts at home in Southampton with a line from T.H. White:

I have lived long enough in the Shire to be able to afford to go away from it with pleasure. I suppose this is what homes are for. If one hadn’t got an anchorage it wouldn’t be exciting to sail away.

This excitement manifests itself in a boundless curiosity for everything he encounters. He attends a porpoise autopsy, which turns into a sort of CSI: Ocean when it transpires the poor cetacean had been murdered by dolphins. He swims with whales off the Azores, in a sequence that climaxes in pseudo-religious revelation when he hears the “sweet, high-pitched song rising up from these cetacean choristers in the sea’s cathedral.” In the final chapters, he sails the Indian Ocean and round the Antipodes, recounting the barbarisms of early European settlers against the Aboriginal populations and indigenous wildlife, including the Tasmanian tiger. At the end he returns to Southampton… though one wonders for how long.

There’s time travel, too. One of the most fascinating chapters in the book describes the period of London’s imperial history when science and entertainment hadn’t quite merged with ethics, a time of great discoveries at great cost. We meet Chunee the elephant, whose gruesome fate at Exeter Exchange was a significant step in the birth of the modern animal rights movement, and the surgeon John Hunter, whose quest for knowledge led him to give himself syphilis and who offered one of the first major anatomies of the whale. Visiting the Isle of Wight, Hoare encounters the ghosts of Darwin and Tennyson — composing On the Origin of Species and the Arthurian Idylls on different parts of the island at the same time — and the photographer Julia Margaret Cameron. Indeed he finds eccentrics and artists everywhere. His mini biographies of T.H. White, Thomas Merton, St. Cuthbert, and many other such solitary, nature-loving, sometimes fierce figures, are at once highly sympathetic and slightly (strangely?) jealous. These are the people, one senses, whom Hoare believes have the sea inside them, who experience a true oneness with nature, an intimacy with the sublime, a fear of love and a love of fear.

And it’s in these interstitial passages, thumbnail sketches tacked on to the vast oceanic map of the book at large, where the meaning of Hoare’s title starts to swim, oscillating, uncertain, into view. “The sea inside” is a metaphor for all that is unfathomable, ineffable, dark, and terrible in the human soul. Hoare offers plenty of evidence for this dark side, from the dismemberment of St. Oswald to the contemporary practices of French chefs:

A captive ortolan’s eyes were poked out; it was then force-fed oats before being drowned in brandy and swallowed beak-first, its carcase covered with a napkin to hide the shameful act from the eyes of God.

The sea inside is also a form of madness. We are reminded of the sea monsters glimpsed on the periphery of Iris Murdoch’s The Sea, the Sea (1978), a manifestation of protagonist Charles Arrowby’s increasing mental disorientation. Hoare’s landscapes are also often surreal, with their “eroded stumps, like rotten molars,” their “armpits and hollows, crevices and groins shifting like a restive sleeper under a downy duvet, all coursing through the ground, their cracks filled with lush plants that wouldn’t survive out in the open.” His is a way of seeing the world that recalls at times J.G. Ballard’s; a pervasive sense of the interpenetration, sometimes violent, of interiority and the outside world.

This violence is an inherent byproduct of our wanderings. The need to escape, in Melville’s phrase, “the damp, drizzly November in my soul” by taking to water is one that has spawned some of humanity’s most appalling errors: imperial genocide, the rape of the ocean, the extinction of untold species. It needn’t even be intentional. Within two generations of James Cook’s first contact with the Māori, measles had halved their number. There’s always been a dark Heisenbergian irony to human exploration, as we plunder-blunder ‘cross sea and land. Even early attempts to figure out the extent of the damage whaling had done to the world’s cetacean population was as much a part of the problem as the solution (see D. Graham Burnett’s extraordinary, encyclopaedic The Sounding of the Whale for more).

All this no doubt accounts for Hoare’s ambivalence at the book’s close. On top of the melancholy of the homecomer, he must contend with the violent flipside of our nautical explorations. He also sees that he will never truly be of the sea, that the sea inside is in some ways a contradiction in terms. Still, one cannot help but marvel at his attempts to reconcile the contradiction in this quite remarkable book.

You can buy The Whale: In Search of the Giants of the Sea and The Sea Inside at McNally Jackson. Follow Philip Hoare on Twitter and via his blog. Melville House has a pretty great feed, too, not to mention a cool website (“That Whale is Out There, Man!”). Oh, and did we mention that John Waters loves The Sea Inside?

Can The News Make Us Better?

You’re back at work after a lovely long weekend. You log on to your computer.

What’s the first thing you do? Check the news?

Read on.

In his latest book, Alain de Botton, who has made a career examining how we love, live and work, tackles one of the most ubiquitous yet under-analysed aspects of modern life. The News: A User’s Manual (Pantheon Books, 2014) sets out to expose the essentially weird and hazardous relationship we have with news. De Botton’s concern stems from a simple worry: given that the news is the dominant form of education for the world’s adult population, shouldn’t we be more concerned by its unselfconscious presentation of a simplistic worldview?

After all, who hasn’t felt at times that the news is just depressing, unedifying, even boring? It affords us direct access to what de Botton calls “the crucible of human horror” without once acknowledging the flipside (“65 million people go to bed every night without hitting or murdering anyone”). It introduces us to a range of characters enviable for their looks, wealth and fabulous successes, then strikes them down for their hubris. It blows our tiny minds with fiscal stats no more truly comprehensible than the temperature of the sun or our distance from Neptune. And it shows us corruption in places we’ve never heard of perpetrated by people whose lives look nothing like ours. These, de Botton argues, are inadequate techniques for presenting world events. “At the very moment when our societies have reached a stage of unparalleled complexity,” he writes, “we have impatiently come to expect all substantial issues to be capable of drastic compression.” But they’re not.

So what’s the solution?

The main problem is lack of complexity. News organisations, de Botton claims, “are institutionally committed to implying that it is inevitably better to have a shaky and partial grasp of a subject this minute than to wait for a more secure and comprehensive understanding somewhere down the line”. The culture of breaking news has led to a permaflow of speculation and misinformation being presented as facts, or at the very least as being part of a “developing situation”. In Heisenbergian terms, this can even affect the trajectory of a story. If a fire crew hears a rumour on the news that there are people still stuck inside a burning building, what can they do but go back in?

Alain de Botton (Photo: Vincent Starr)

But even the sober next-day write-up can be severely myopic. News stories are too often context-lite, a mere dip into a narrative infinitely more complex. “It is as if we were being asked to open our eyes a millimetre or two above an inchoate bluish-purple surface marked with random black dashes tinged white along their edges,” de Botton suggests. Whatever we see, we’re unlikely to realise that what we’re staring at is a Titian. And without that sense of scale, we make bad judgements. It’s easy to assume that incompetence or malice are at the heart of our leaders’ failure to make the world a better place. In reality, it’s usually more complicated. And the news industry’s self-appointment as a kind of check on executive power — or even secondary police force — is all very well and good when it comes to Watergate-style busts, but it’s shamelessly ineffective at tackling the unglamorous, systemic problems that ultimately stymy the progress of civilisation. Journalism, for de Botton, “is, or should be, a government in exile that works through all issues of national life with a view to suggesting ways to build a better country”.

This is quite something. Can the news be re-presented in such a way that it can actually make us better?

Take the aforementioned “crucible of human horror”. Playwrights of old devoted two hours’ stage traffic to transforming horror into tragedy, a form that revels in gruesome detail but ultimately enlightens through its empathetic presentation of human psychology. If we can understand a little more about criminal motives and the emotional consequences of violence, at the very least we are relieved of the terror that we live in an irrationally hostile world. The presentation of violence in art, when accompanied by catharsis, can be a way of working through what’s hardest about being human. Through adopting some more creative techniques, in essence reversing the polarity of the new journalism, might reporters not also offer a kind of catharsis?

George Eliot once wrote that “the extension of our sympathies” was one of the primary purposes of art. De Botton suggests that the news can do the same. And not just in persuading us that every murderer might have the tragic potential of a Hamlet. In a chapter on world news, he argues that the reason many of us are turned off by it is because it’s psychologically harder to get worked up about a coup in some far-flung part of the world if one has no concept of what’s ordinary there. His model for an ideal news organisation makes space for a kind of reportage driven by promoting the ordinary a little more, by restoring a sense of worldly balance to a news cycle dominated by the absurd or extreme. This would make cross-cultural empathy a much easier prospect.

He also considers celebrity news, and asks what might happen if we distilled what it is we find truly impressive about famous people. That way, our envy at their seeming-infinite virtue and our scorn at their Icarian fall will abate, leaving behind a more measured sense of what we might all usefully strive towards. In de Botton’s world, “every celebrity story would at heart be a piece of education, an invitation to learn from an admirable person about how to become a slightly better version of oneself”.

However one takes de Botton’s recommendations for an ideal news organisation, his User’s Manual is certainly a useful corrective to the hegemony of News as we know it. And if we all just thought a little bit differently about it as a result, perhaps we’d be one step towards being better through news.

Check out The News: A User’s Manual at McNally Jackson here and follow Alain de Botton on Twitter here.