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Book: “What We Cannot Know: Explorations at the Edge of Knowledge” by Marcus Du Sautoy

I love new technologies, and not just because my work, which is my true passion, revolves around them all the time. I marvel at them simply as an ordinary user. In my day-to-day life I use smart home solutions, I am a beneficiary of enormous possibilities which new technologies offer, and I look forward to new ones with great excitement.


Perhaps not everyone is aware that these new technologies would have never been brought to us without the application of quantum mechanics, a theory which is now almost one hundred years old and which describes the world at the smallest scale of energy levels of atoms. A simple example could be transistors – the basic components of every logical system. The first transistor-operated computer was built in 1953. It contained as many as … 52 transistors (yes, yes, exactly fifty two). The current annual world production is ten quintillion (that’s ten with eighteen zeros) transistors. That’s over one hundred times more than the number of grains of rice eaten annually by the entire human population! Each phone contains about one billion transistors. The electronic power is, quite literally, the power of quantum mechanics. Never before could humanity dream of such a pace of development. The unquestionable success of science does not mean we know everything today. It is easy to make ourselves believe though that full, complete and absolutely credible knowledge about the world that surrounds us is within our grasp. A British mathematician from Oxford, Marcus Du Sautoy, resolved to explain why this is impossible. In the process, he showed what limits science faces. What is even more interesting is that the limits of science are not so much due to our imperfect measuring instruments as to the very nature of the Universe.


The best example is indeed quantum mechanics, which argues that reality at the fundamental level is indeterminate. Since quantum theory applies to everything that surrounds us, from elementary particles to galaxies, we will never be able to predict the outcome of, e.g., the throw of a die. We will never come anywhere close to solving the problem even if we have all the theoretically available data about the physical properties of the die. An elementary particle is not an object with a fixed position but a set of outcomes spread out in the probability space. Matter consists of particles. So does a die.


This is just one of many fascinating subjects raised by Marcus Du Sautoy. The chaos theory, which was pioneered by the American mathematician Edward Lorenz, explains among other things why we will never be able to put together an accurate long-term weather forecast. As with the quantum theory, the problem is not our inability to analyse the data but the nature of the thing itself. We study reality using numbers that have a certain accuracy, e,g., three or four places after the decimal. With complex physical systems, such as Earth’s atmosphere, even the smallest differences in the initial conditions lead to diametrically different final outcomes of our calculations. Cue the popular story about a butterfly flapping its wings.


The list of fundamental limits put together by the author is very long and extends as far as the famous incompleteness theorem posited by the Austrian logician and mathematician Kurt Gödel. So it is tempting to call Marcus Du Sautoy’s book a compendium of ignorance. It is worth going back to it from time to time or give it a try if we have not yet warmed to exact sciences, because knowledge that some things cannot be known is equally valuable. As in science so in corporate leadership.


About the book interview with the author

TED with the author, on symetry

The book is available at e.g., here.


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