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Reith Lectures 2010 - lecture three: What We'll Never Know

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Steve Bowbrick Steve Bowbrick 08:30, Tuesday, 15 June 2010

Reith Audience 600

The third of Professor Martin Rees' 2010 Reith Lectures was recorded in the Royal Society's lecture theatre in front of an audience of fellows of the society, working scientists, journalists and public figures. Listen to the lecture and join in with the conversation about Professor Rees' big theme - the outer limits of what we can know.

To join in, listen to the programme live, click the 'play' button in the chat window above and type your comment, send an email to thereithlectures@bbc.co.uk or tweet using the hashtag #Reith. We'll publish as many of your comments here as we can during the lecture and, afterwards, once the chat has finished, we'll open comments on this blog post so that you can leave your reactions and ideas at your leisure.

Steve Bowbrick is editor of the Radio 4 blog

  • Visit the Reith web site to listen to all of the previous lectures and to many from the archive.
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  • The picture shows the audience for the third lecture, gathered in the Royal Society's lecture theatre.

Comments

  • Comment number 1.

    It is impossible to know everything as in order to store that much information you would require something as big as the Universe to store it in.

    Remember that everything includes the position and behaviour of every single atom that exists.

    The Universe itself is the only thing that could ever know everything, humans are far too limited.

  • Comment number 2.

    I sincerely hope not, how dull would that be!

  • Comment number 3.

    Is science assuming there is an "everything" to know?

    I am happy to believe that any and all presence in this universe is forever experiencing something new.

  • Comment number 4.

    There will always be unanswered questions ,science advances by asking 'why?'.
    No doubt the mystics will claim a higher knowledge based on 'the knowing'.

  • Comment number 5.

    Of course we will. The universe may be infinite but the rules etc that created it arent.

  • Comment number 6.

    I think it was Oscar Wilde who suggested he was not young enough to know everything.

  • Comment number 7.

    Wouldn't knowing everything make us omnipotent gods?

    If so sign me up.

    We've got a couple of billion years before the sun fizzles out, plenty of time to learn a lot of the universe's secrets - assuming the human race lasts that long.

    Prepare for Godhood.

  • Comment number 8.

    It is good to think that some learned professor is beginning to realise that only God knows all the answers - Allelujah!

  • Comment number 9.

    What is knowing everything? There isn't a purpose in literally knowing everything is there?

    We should frame the question in a purposeful way.

    From a physicist's purpose, can we discover all the laws which govern the observable universe? That I think has a good chance.

    As for finding an explanation of specific questions like how did the universe come into being, we can use the known laws and piece together all the clues we can observe to find an explanation.

    That explanation would only be as good as the clues and laws can give us. We might or might not be able to verify the explanation.

  • Comment number 10.

    I hope not... learning is so much fun!

    Anyway, wouldn't it trigger the end of the universe?

  • Comment number 11.

    There are no stupid questions, but there are a lot of inquisitive idiots.

  • Comment number 12.

    My father taught me that when you find an answer to a problem it immediately poses another question.

    I believe that nature, in hand with science, has a good chance at solving most of this planet's problems. I agree with someone else on this site who said ' it would be a boring old world if there was no mystery'.

  • Comment number 13.

    As long as science solves the question of a lifetime of 'missing' socks and why the bread falls jam side down I'll be more than happy.

  • Comment number 14.

    Surely if we knew everything, what is the point of living ?
    The point of living is surely that of discovery ?

    Have we not seen that as one question is answered a multitude of new questions are generated from that answer.

    Yes we may understand the rules that create the universe but that doesnt mean we could understand every permetation of those rules and that is infinite or close to.

  • Comment number 15.

    Heisenburg's uncertainty principle makes knowing 'all' on a microscopic level impossible and therefore it becomes impossible to know all on the macroscopic level due to the butterfly effect.
    In general the forces of organised stupidity in the form of religion and other irrational ways of thinking are mostly in retreat and the 'god of the gaps' as a way to explain the way anything works is finding fewer and fewer places to hide.
    I think our knowledge will always increase but ALL is a really big thing.

  • Comment number 16.

    Of course not! With Donald Rumsfeld's famous comment firmly in mind, how can you "know" that which you don't know you don't know?

  • Comment number 17.

    "8. At 10:44am on 15 Jun 2010, Alfred Penderel Bright wrote:

    It is good to think that some learned professor is beginning to realise that only God knows all the answers - Allelujah!"

    Ha! You've been caught in the act creating yet another religious false dichotomy! - Touched by the noodly appendage of the Flying Spaghetti Monster!

  • Comment number 18.

    A most excellent lecture, but I would take issue with the title. What We'll Never Know, should really have been 'What we don't know yet!' I am reminded yet again of the head of the head of the German patent office in 1904, who on hearing of the Wright brothers first flight, declared that, "Everything that can be invented, has been invented!"
    It is difficult to take your mind out of its comfort zone and challenge the perceived wisdom of the day, in order to take a peek beyond the horizon of conventional knowledge. It is however those individuals who do that, that advance our understanding of the world and indeed universe we live in.
    I am always intriuged by those who think that their should be some kind of conflict between an understanding of science and a belief in god. The fact of the matter is, Quantum theory and the comming String theory, very much hint at an explanation for many things that at the moment go under the label of the 'Metaphysical', with the predictions of alternate lives and multiple universes. Just because most of the organised religions have made a mess of their faiths, is no reason to discard them all together. The fact of the matter is that our knowledge of both the physical and spiritual is still in its infancy and clouded by ignorance and prejudice. I for one believe that we will over time acquire a greater knowledge and understanding of both.

  • Comment number 19.

    If we ever know everything about biochemistry if won't be in your lifetime, or that of your children, experiments are getting harder and harder as the questions get more and more complex, career politicians who do Ba's is political philospophy and are frightened of or are too dim to understand science, and the dogmatic religious who sense their world crumbling around them are attempting to undermine our work and cutting our funding and misunderstanding why blue-sky research is the way ahead and how right-fenced research is a waste of time and money. sometimes I'm amazed at how little we do know. No synthetic life has actually been created from scratch, no ears have been grown on mice, just sensationalist claptrap from the media. Still, keeps me in a job.

  • Comment number 20.

    No we will never know everything, but I know a God who does.

  • Comment number 21.

    ring-fenced i meant

  • Comment number 22.

    We will never know everything about science and this is what makes science so challenging AND exciting. It's also what drives us.

    The mystery of the universre is still out there waiting to be discovered.

  • Comment number 23.

    Science is, by nature, a subjective discipline. Science is the subjective interpretation of objective results. The LHC produces a set of raw data which scientists and 'the informed' then choose to interpret in a particular way. All science can provide us with is a mass consensus on the understanding of results but can't deliver 'truth' or 'knowledge' so no we can never 'know' everything as there is always someone who will disagree.

  • Comment number 24.

    It depends how you define 'everything'.

    If by 'everything', you mean *everything*, then of course we can't possibly know it all. There are just too many 'things' to know - how big every grain of sand is on every planet in the universe, for instance. Even how big they are on just this one planet is something it's doubtful we'd ever know - because it's not important enough to spend the resources to find out (especially because the answer will probably have changed by the time you get to the end).

    Only an omniscient being could know everything (by definition).

    Of course, if by 'everything' you really mean 'all the important rules in a particular small branch of science', then it's possible, but doubtful, we could know that at some point - but don't hold your breath.

  • Comment number 25.

    Well, surely much depends on your definition of 'everything'.

    If everything consists of all that is, what the human mind has conceived is included. That includes that which has been imagined or believed, which could mean that which never was, is, or ever will physically be. Thus everything includes all that is in the limitless expanses of the human mind. To say that we could ever know everything that we could ever conceive of would be to say that we would never again have a new thought.

    I don't believe that is possible.

  • Comment number 26.

    As Socrates said thousands of years ago: "The only thing we do know is that we know nothing."
    All science provides are theories or perspectives that allow us to "navigate" our way through the world and impart such data to our offspring.
    We may like to call these perspectives "facts" but they are certainly NOT "truths" by any use of the word. They cannot be truths, because science evolves by induction i.e. the sun rose yesterday, therefore I assume that it will rise again today. Only deduction produces truths and science only induces.
    Ultimately, all we have is a combination of perspectives that hold for a while but are then periodically overturned in a paradigm shift.

  • Comment number 27.

    EdwinaTS wrote:
    As for finding an explanation of specific questions like how did the universe come into being, we can use the known laws and piece together all the clues we can observe to find an explanation.

    That explanation would only be as good as the clues and laws can give us. We might or might not be able to verify the explanation.



    I don't think we will ever know how the Universe came into being, the best we will ever do is to find out how the Universe behaved in the micro-seconds after the big bang. Scientists are getting closer and closer to explaining what happened up to the moment of creation but I don't think they'll ever get as far back as the starting point.

    The problem we face is that the laws of physics begin to break down the closer you get to the point of creation and as we live in a Universe that is governed by the laws of physics it is almost impossible for us to understand a situation where those laws are different or even non-existent. So, as you say, we'll never be able to test the theory in a way that will satisfy scientists.

    I understand why people want to know how the Universe came into being but I don't think we'll ever find out, which is probably for the best anyway as the journey is often far more fun than the destination and once we've got all of the answers there will be nothing left for us to debate (and the debate is often the most enjoyable part of science, for me anyway).

    I just wish I could understand all of the latest scientific discoveries, I try my best but some of the concepts and models being used these days are so intricate that it takes a lifetime of study to really understand them and as I'm coming to the end of mine there just isn't enough time left to study them all...

  • Comment number 28.

    Unfortunately I missed the lecture so will be listening to it later.

    I think it is highly unlikely that we can ever know everything, as someone else wrote, everytime you answer a question, and inquisitive mind will find that it asks another one.

    I think the question of where the universe came from will probably be the last outstanding question. How do you create something out of nothing or has it existed for ever? Surely everything must have a start. For the religious people who will argue that it was God's doing - what created God? Surely he couldn't create himself before he had a self.

    With science we have come along way, and we are answering more and more questions all the time, but there are some things that we may never comprehend.

  • Comment number 29.

    Sorry but this is a pointless debate as science stills manipulates facts to fit it's theories instead of accepting what is around. It is also stuck in the belief of old victorian science as a given instead of challenging it and restarting. If the bedrock of science is flawed then there is no help for the rest of it.
    Science has to open it's mind to accept things which it does not understand, because something can't be explained.

  • Comment number 30.

    One batch of stuff we`ll never know is whether Fred Hoyle and Chandra Wickramasinghe were right about micro-organisms having conquered interstellar space long before multicellular organisms were even thought of.
    It would mean the end not only of Bill Gates pushing vaccines onto Africans(Radio4 Today earlier),but the end of MMR profits and maybe even master-race IQ tests designed to show that the last set of parties know what they`re talking about and we all don`t.

    It might even need re-thinking Darwin-surely a middle-class white guy`s theories can`t be wrong? In physics,no-one wakes up and worships
    Newton or Einstein like a god.The idea is to wake up & try to prove them wrong!!!!!!!!

  • Comment number 31.

    Looking at the rate of progress of human science, there is a noticable logarithmic pattern to it, much like Moore's "Law".

    It has been predicted that with the ever increasing speed of computers, and the eventual reality of quantum computing, that AI will become a distinct posibility. The same predictions state that such an AI will take over the performing of calculations, theories and simulations, etc. So that the ever-increasing rate of progress can continue.

    These predictions call the date that this happens the "Technological Singularity". The point at which we know everything, or the speed at which it takes to discover something is instantaeous.

    It's interesting, because it's held true from when it was first noticed in the '70s until now. There's also a few people spending lots of money trying to predict when this will happen, or if it is even going to happen. I'm not so sure, but it's interesting either way.

  • Comment number 32.

    As any teenager will tell you we know everything between the ages of 13 and 20. After that some of us grow up and some go on to be politicians.

  • Comment number 33.

    Dear Martin,

    What do you mean I don't know, everything ?

    God.

  • Comment number 34.

    If we knew everything, then questions would no longer matter. That would be a disaster.

    There is one question I want answering.

    I understand that I, along with all other humans, am made of the stuff of the universe, the same stuff stars are made of. How is it that I, a small portion of that stuff, am thinking about existence? What is it about the universe that it has enabled part of itself to think about its own existence?

    I reckon if I knew why the universe behaves that way then I would know pretty much all that matters.

  • Comment number 35.

    Our contemporary view of science is that it is measured (and therefore only understood) by reason and the rational lenses that we humans use to observe it. We have not made any real or worthwhile attempt to look at science from the irrational lense [opinon; point of view; concept] yet. Rest assured we will and it will open up a whole new can of worms! We need to learn to accept and acknowledge the irrational part of the human mind in science as well. 1 out 1 people in this world are have an irrational side to themselves that cannot be explained by rational science. e.g. religion and/or spirituality, art, music, creativity, and of course their contemporary cousins, we are all guilty of practicing at least one of these things...We could suggest then that we open up the doors to this irrational part of ourselves when considerting the mysteries of the universe and consider and document such observations with that lense. So then rather that saying 'is there a God?' we could say 'What if there is?' and look at the same science we have already theorised on in the past with the rational lense but with this irrational lense instead...?

    (Before we can make that particular assumption however, we need to come to a recognised agreement of what the God 'Character' is with regards to our present opinion of the universe).

    (there is a definitive difference between what is insanity and what is irrationality they are not the same from the rational point of view.)

  • Comment number 36.

    Learning is the travelling endured by the educated explorer.
    Knowing, not everything can be known, makes no difference.

    That's what awaits the traveller at the station.

  • Comment number 37.

    Comment 5. JohnR Smith:-

    "Of course we will. The universe may be infinite but the rules etc that created it arent."

    This echoes the point I made in '34'.

    You have made an important distinction between knowing all the minutia and knowing the rules that make it all hang together and work. This distinction appears to reduce our workload of discovery, but we may still find the rules beyond our comprehension until we and our culture become god-like.

  • Comment number 38.

    NO, science will never know all the answers because it refuses to examine all the evidences in a scientific way. The reality is that for most scientists their approach is ideological. They interpret the evidence to fit their view point.

    In fact, they are so terrified of being seen to be wrong, they refuse to allow any alternative view that may show them to be wrong. Thus, the very notion of including a creationist approach to the test will not be allowed, as they do not want to run the risk of discovering that creationism is right and evolution just might be wrong.

    True creationism has nothing to fear from evolution if given a level field. Indeed, the two can work hand in hand easily.Remember, most major scientific discoveries down through the ages were made by men and women who believe the Bible.

  • Comment number 39.

    we will never know what[everything]is all about,because we are not intelligent enough,and most probably never will be,einstein wrote about TIME,it does not excist,it is a concept that man invented to bring some kind of meaning to everything,my idea of time is a series of events occuring one after another ad in finitum,but i am only a human,

  • Comment number 40.

    i have never had a comment posted yet??

  • Comment number 41.

    Nope, we'll never know everything. New discoveries lead to new ideas, further discoveries and more questions to answer.

    I feel that we don'teven know as much as we think we know. Especially if we try to be politically correct and re-write facts to fit our views, we never will!

  • Comment number 42.

    I thought we already did and the answer is 42!

  • Comment number 43.

    What does knowing everything mean anyway? The question encapsulates so many sub-divisions as to be almost meaningless. I think a more important question is how we can organise and use our knowledge in the most wise manner, such that we maximise the benefits for the greatest number of people. Someone might 'know' every word in a 1000 page book without understanding the meaning.

  • Comment number 44.

    There was this guy who knew everything, then one day someone asked him a question he didn't understand about a subject he had never heard of, so he ignored it and he still knew everything.
    QED

  • Comment number 45.

    33. At 2:06pm on 15 Jun 2010, SSnotbanned wrote:

    "Dear Martin,

    What do you mean I don't know, everything ?

    God."

    Dear God,

    If you knew everything, you wouldn't need to ask!

    Sue

  • Comment number 46.

    How can it? Science creates more questions than answers, most of which are a distraction from reality!

  • Comment number 47.

    As each piece of knowledge gained results in numerous new questions, there will be no end - presuming that mankind doesn't blow itself to oblivion or poison Earth, the solar system and the accesible universe to a degree where no life is viable.

  • Comment number 48.

    Peter Hodge wrote:
    Remember, most major scientific discoveries down through the ages were made by men and women who believe the Bible.


    Remember, most of those scientists gave up their religious beliefs once they made their discoveries...

  • Comment number 49.

    Blah, fiddle dee dee, potatoes. - Sums it up nicely.

  • Comment number 50.

    This question reminds me of the story, allegedly true, that in 1896 (or thereabouts) the head of the Patent Office asked for it to be disbanded, because 'everything which could be invented had been invented'...

  • Comment number 51.

    Notice in the back of a car on the A23...
    'Hire a teenager while they still know everything'...

  • Comment number 52.

    Some people do know everything already. They're called "Politicians". . .

  • Comment number 53.

    There is a group of humans who know everything already - they are called teenagers ;-)

    Seriously though, at some point we will know everything - I have a sneaky suspicion that it will be moments before the end of the universe as there is always someone who wonders what will happen if......

  • Comment number 54.

    No, If you think even for a second, when we answered the question "can a plane be made to fly?", it posed hundreds more (faster, higher, farther etc) and discovery (both mental and physical) is the elixir of an enjoyable life.
    With respect to the poster of 38, The only way creationism could stand on a level playing field with any scientific theory, let alone the fact of evolution is if a single, indisputable shred of evidence is found to support it. As for the standard 'evidence' usually given for this frankly absurd belief, No, pointing out of gaps in the fossil record does not prove the existence of a creator any more than it disproves evolution. All it proves is the fragility and rarity of identifiable fossilised remains. Please, present one single piece of observable evidence of the hand of a creator, or intelligent intervention of any kind. The truth is you can't, and to infer the scientific community is biased and has an anti-creationist agenda is ludicrous. Nobody campaigns against science like the religious right, Its like every advancement made by rational thinkers bring the light of reality into your dark little cave, and now at the start of a new century your cowering at the back, like a cornered fox, clinging to the last few shadows of a dark ages mentality.

  • Comment number 55.

    How on earth can a living species that does not know how to keep money safe in a bank be expected to know everything? We have yet to learn that our role is to take care of the world not to destroy it by grabbing as much as we can for ourselves.

  • Comment number 56.

    "38. At 2:29pm on 15 Jun 2010, Peter Hodge wrote:
    NO, science will never know all the answers because it refuses to examine all the evidences in a scientific way. The reality is that for most scientists their approach is ideological. They interpret the evidence to fit their view point.

    In fact, they are so terrified of being seen to be wrong, they refuse to allow any alternative view that may show them to be wrong. Thus, the very notion of including a creationist approach to the test will not be allowed, as they do not want to run the risk of discovering that creationism is right and evolution just might be wrong."

    --------------

    Absolute rubbish. Scientific experimentation is subject to peer review, and published. You don't "interpret" evidence - either if fits the theory or it doesn't. Most scientists would actually be very pleased to discover evidence that a theory was wrong - they would famous!

    You clearly have your own preference for creationism - and that's fine - but don't for a minute try to suggest that it is any way scientific.

  • Comment number 57.

    My ex-wife knew everything. A good way to cut out all the scientists.

  • Comment number 58.

    It is impossible for humans to know everything, we are restricted in our knowledge by time and distance.

    There are infinate things that we know of but just cannot do/achieve/experience ourselves now or even by a million years into the future.

    I have a little print out above my computer monitor which I scribbled a few years ago. It says-

    Infinity of knowledge

    Knowledge is so great that even if human knowledge was enough to fill the density of a billion worlds, it would still be significantly less than one trillionth of knowledge still to learn.

    We have computers that can count numbers that most of us would just find impossible to even get a grasp of. We know of numbers that even if humans counted one by one for a trillion years it would still take a bigger/greater number of years than most people could understand.

    Humans will never know so much because we are just so limited.

    Most people do not know what number a "googol" is. Its a number with 1000 zeros, its impossible for a human to count up to it without the aid of technology, (the numbber 1 million just has 6 zeros in comparison). A number that is so astranomically bigger than a "googol" is a "googol plex". A "googolplex" is so vast that we do not even know what it is so a googolplex plus one is an impossibility to know and is basically irrelevent.

    To travel to outside our planetry neighbourhood would take much longer than the lifetime of one individual, hence even travelling for a million lifetimes we would not be able to reach that which we can see via telescopes etc. Which means that ALL the available knowledge of ALL that which is just in one direct linear line 1mm wide is beyond our capacity to have knowledge about, let alone 360 degrees around us.

    In all things, if we were to measure our knowledge on a solar ruler in milimetres (one ruler is the distance between the sun and earth), the knowledge we have presently attained is MUCH MUCH less than 1 millionth of millimetre in comparison to knowledge that is waiting out there for humans to try and learn about.

    I think the greatest knowledge we can have is that which we know about the wonderous events which led us to our existance and that knowledge which we are capable of using to maximise our continued existance for as long as humanly possible.

  • Comment number 59.

    58. At 4:50pm on 15 Jun 2010, MrWonderfulReality wrote:

    Most people do not know what number a "googol" is. Its a number with 1000 zeros, its impossible for a human to count up to it without the aid of technology, (the numbber 1 million just has 6 zeros in comparison).

    Poster 58 sorry to be pedantic but I'm afraid you are one of 'most' people.
    A googol is actual 10 to the power of 100 not 1000.
    In fact a googol is understandable its quite 'close' to the number of atoms in the observable universe and the number of possible chess games.

  • Comment number 60.

    Some questions are unanswerable because they are products of conceptual confusion. Consider the search for happinness or pleasure centres in an animal's brain. Despite the best efforts of that bogus discipline called animal welfare science it will not be found because happinness is a state of being not a fixture in the brain.
    But then some questions can be answered, like how and why did David Kelly die?

  • Comment number 61.

    46. At 3:23pm on 15 Jun 2010, DoleBoy wrote:
    How can it? Science creates more questions than answers, most of which are a distraction from reality!


    WHY??

    Even a 2/3 year old child will ask WHY, and why again and again and again.

    Its basic human existance and thought that asks questions, NOT just scientists. You do NOT have to be a scientist, educationally certificated or otherwise to want to understand more of what we do not know.

    Questions themselves ARE reality, the ONLY factual way they CANNOT be reality is if they are NOT asked, but some like yourself have little or no concept about true reality.

    You yourself have asked the question "How can it?"

    If that question had not been answered and then re-asked again and again and again in a relevent context then you would NOT be writing your comments on a keyboard sending electronic messages/comments.

  • Comment number 62.

    No one with any real understanding of science would ever claim it is possible to know everything, or indeed suggest that it is really possible to define what "knowing everything" means. Only gods, charlatans and science correspondents are so smug, self-assured or superficial.

  • Comment number 63.

    59. At 5:09pm on 15 Jun 2010, Carl Pierce wrote:
    58. At 4:50pm on 15 Jun 2010, MrWonderfulReality wrote:

    Most people do not know what number a "googol" is. Its a number with 1000 zeros, its impossible for a human to count up to it without the aid of technology, (the numbber 1 million just has 6 zeros in comparison).

    Poster 58 sorry to be pedantic but I'm afraid you are one of 'most' people.
    A googol is actual 10 to the power of 100 not 1000.
    In fact a googol is understandable its quite 'close' to the number of atoms in the observable universe and the number of possible chess games.


    Sorry, you are not pedantic, I stand corrected.
    A googol is the digit 1 followed by one hundred zeros in decimal representation and not 1000 zeros.

  • Comment number 64.

    Will we ever know everything???

    My ex-wife already does.

  • Comment number 65.

    "58. At 4:50pm on 15 Jun 2010, MrWonderfulReality wrote:

    We have computers that can count numbers that most of us would just find impossible to even get a grasp of. We know of numbers that even if humans counted one by one for a trillion years it would still take a bigger/greater number of years than most people could understand.

    Humans will never know so much because we are just so limited.

    Most people do not know what number a "googol" is. Its a number with 1000 zeros, its impossible for a human to count up to it without the aid of technology, "

    What has counting got to do with it? Your statement is irrelevant in the extreme, if you examine it. If you count in arithmetic progression from 1 to any number it will take you a long time, if you can count one number per second for 50 years you get to 1.5 billion, which is a meaningful number.
    But if you aren't a chimp (or a rabbit, who'd have stopped at five) then you have this amazing invention called mathematics, which consigns counting to its proper function of keeping accountants out of mischief.

    You also have a fundamental misconception of technology. Computers don't count, they perform algorithms that are analogous. Typically you don't use everyday numbers anyway, real science computers use double precision real numbers, because real numbers are either very large or very small.

  • Comment number 66.

    "I understand that I, along with all other humans, am made of the stuff of the universe, the same stuff stars are made of. How is it that I, a small portion of that stuff, am thinking about existence? What is it about the universe that it has enabled part of itself to think about its own existence?" -Wind-Blown

    Reminds me of that excellent Carl Sagan quote about us being a way for the Universe to take its destiny into its own hands. I love the thought of that.

    And here is another quote from the great man:

    "Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known."

    So my thought for the day is this: The day we assume that we know everything will be a sad day for human beings, and a final victory for obnoxiousness and arrogance. How will we ever hope to know everything, or to assume that we do, when at any one time we are surrounded by the unknown. And if we're surrounded by the unknown, how will we ever know what else there is to know? Thats like trying to add 1 to infinity, a hopeless endeavour - but one we should never stop striving for.

  • Comment number 67.

    Would we really want to?

  • Comment number 68.

    While it is impossible to know everything, Science is the way forward...what else can we do anyway?

  • Comment number 69.

    Of course we will never know everything. It's not even possible that we'll ever have any idea of how much we don't know. Any scientist who claims otherwise (as I've heard at least one do, I can't remember who) is arrogant and frankly stupid.

    We don't even have any real concept of what 'to know' really means - ie how the human brain works, and interprets the universe, let alone what could lie outside our perception of it, via our senses, machines, mathematics, philosophy, theology or otherwise.

    Isaac Newton, probably one of the greatest scientific thinkers ever to live, said at the end of his life something like that he had been a small child playing with pebbles on a beach while all the time nearby there was an infinite ocean of knowledge that was beyond his grasp.

  • Comment number 70.

    I listened with interest to the latest Reith lecture, given by Martin Rees, in which he asserted that time travel is and always will be impossible (which I agree with), but he also said that Einstein's Theory of Relativity was correct - or perhaps just implied it. The Theory of relativity has many strange things buried in it, including time travel. A believer in relativity, therefore, must believe in time travel. Which is it Martin?

    Tom Hollings.

  • Comment number 71.

    I think that we might eventually know all the answers, but the universe will probably end first.

  • Comment number 72.

    there is some sort of misconception about knowledge in that question.

  • Comment number 73.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 74.

    Will science know everything? Will budgerigars drive cars? Will dogs speak English? Will a cow win the Grand National? I think not! Science will always be limited by it's propensity to disprove it's own validity. One day it will prove that DNA testing is unreliable.

  • Comment number 75.

    Probably not. Unless I tell somebody or unless someone can devise a way of peering into my life 20 minutes ago before I put my pyjamas on, no one will ever know what I wore today because no one saw me today.

  • Comment number 76.

    I think it is better to ask if we will ever have all the questions!

    and given the true expanse of the everything beyond ourselves is it really possible to have all the questions?

    it is probably possible to have a lot or nearly even most of the questions combined in and amongst the entire human race a long way into the deep future, but even then without all the questions how can we have all the answers?

    simple, we can't!

  • Comment number 77.

    Most people do not know what number a "googol" is. Its a number with 1000 zeros, its impossible for a human to count up to it without the aid of technology, (the numbber 1 million just has 6 zeros in comparison). A number that is so astranomically bigger than a "googol" is a "googol plex". A "googolplex" is so vast that we do not even know what it is so a googolplex plus one is an impossibility to know and is basically irrelevent.
    _____________________

    What's in a name or number it is but a label for the sake of convenience. I sometimes think theres a department out there that comes up with names for things that don't exist, then invents something to match the name.

  • Comment number 78.

    Alfred E Neuman knew all the answers but he's now deceased.

  • Comment number 79.

    One of the dumbest questions on HYS ever.

    The way our brains are designed and function makes it impossible to "know" everything.

    We all have our own unique perspective of the world that we create, how can everyone know everything?

  • Comment number 80.

    The fact that we have intellectuals who we pay to discuss this worries me far more than the question itself.

  • Comment number 81.

    This is a deceptively deep question - not at all trivial as the previous poster suggests. Clearly science will never literally know everything, however having listened to the lecture the question seems to be more about can science ever know enough to allow us complete control (or understanding) over the things that are of immediate concern to us.

    Therefore, if we take the question to mean: "will we ever know everything that is useful to know?" (knowing the atomic layout of the universe would avail us little for example), then the answer would still be no. The more we discover and find out, the more our "need to know" increases.

    It is a defining characteristic of human kind that we see additional possibilities in every new thing we learn - well, one does daily meet exceptions to this rule, but it holds true in general. Thus, it's difficult to see how our quest to find out new things can ever end.

    Alan T

  • Comment number 82.

    Goedel proved this was impossible in 1931.

  • Comment number 83.

    Another very silly question! The answer is no and the reason is simply that the universe is ungoing continual evolution from the tiniest particle through to complex systems. Every time we think we get close, the system moves on. The question also assumes that we will be around to discover the answers, but the probability is that our species will die out long before then.

  • Comment number 84.

    Rules only exist in convenient minds.

    As Fire once said to Water "Mostly I will heat you up until you boil but, just very occasionally, I like to be unpredictable."

    And as Water once said to Earth "Mostly I will refreshingly fill some of your gaps, but sometimes I get bored."

    And Earth said to Fire "Hey, baby, I can put you out, but what is the point of spoiling the fun we can have huh?"

    And Fire said "Air today. Gone tomorrow."

  • Comment number 85.

    This isn't a question about will we know the make up of everything; the size of every grain of sand or what all people are wearing at any one time as some previous posters have mentioned, but as Alan T wrote, whether or not it is possible to know everything that is useful to know. It is also not a question as to whether or not the human race will survive long enough to do this, but whether we have the capacity to. I would say to this, probably not but we could get close.

    An area I have been contimplating since this lecture, is the creation of the universe. If we develop the knowledge to create universes that will not help us answer how ours was created? If we create a universe does that make us Gods? Would we be able to interact with it once created, would we evern be able to observe it? We could learn to understand nano-seconds from the moment of creation, but to know what happened before our time started, that we will likely never know. However, that is no reason not to look for an answer.

    To JobyJak, the fact that people have contimplated these questions is the only reason we have the knowledge and technology we have today. The world is made by people who wonder

  • Comment number 86.

    "What we'll never know."

    I wonder if by "we", Professor Martin Rees meant members of the Royal Society and their equivalent in the upper echelons of science.
    For such minds were the day to ever come when all became known, it would no doubt be horribly tiresome to spend the rest of eternity communicating "everything" in digestible pellets to the rest of the species (also qualifying as "we").
    Still, as the saying goes, those who can - do, and those who've reached the absolute previously-thought immeasurable limits of knowledge, teach.

  • Comment number 87.

    #16 "Of course not! With Donald Rumsfeld's famous comment firmly in mind, how can you "know" that which you don't know you don't know?"


    There are plenty of things we 'know we don't know'... for instance we know that we don't know why the forces of gravity are so weak in relation to other forces. Unlike religion science is very good at highlighting what it doesn't fully understand and freely admits to things like 'the missing link' in the theory of mans evolution.

  • Comment number 88.

    #74 "Science will always be limited by it's propensity to disprove it's own validity. One day it will prove that DNA testing is unreliable."

    No scientist claims it is. Even Alec Jeffries who invented the technique freely admits its not 100% perfect.

    That is why in court a DNA match is given as '1 in 100,000' chance of the sample being from someone else. Not "this 100% absolutely proves the person is guilty" The fact that the lawyers and jurors are often scientifically ignorant and can't understand what the forensic people tell them doesn't mean the science is 'wrong'

  • Comment number 89.

    A physicist is an atom's way of understanding atoms.
    Unfortunately, science can only tell us about what we can say about Universe (using Buckminster Fuller's convention as referring to Universe as a dynamic process, rather than a thing/noun).
    Any good scientist will keep in mind that our models of universe are simply the best models we can create from our existing data, and should be updated with any new data. The models never become the thing they're models of, as pointed out in comment #1. The map is not the territory, the menu is not the meal.

    As for 'A "googolplex" is so vast that we do not even know what it is so a googolplex plus one is an impossibility to know and is basically irrelevent.'
    We DO know what it "is", as it is defined as 10 raised to the power of a googol, or 1 followed by a googol of zeroes. Vastly more than the number of atoms in Universe (est. 10^60).
    Mathematics allows us to define and manipulate numbers so vast they make a googolplex look like nothing - look up "Graham's number", "Iterated exponentiation" or "tetration".

  • Comment number 90.

    89. At 09:14am on 16 Jun 2010, MikeVonDoom wrote: "...using Buckminster Fuller's convention as referring to Universe as a dynamic process, rather than a thing/noun)."

    I like the idea of 'universe' becoming a verb, much like 'mushroom'.
    Soon to be heard at management consultancy meetings and in mission statements everywhere, "the board aims to universe the development of a qualitative...etc".

  • Comment number 91.

    In response to Alan T and And Here We Go Again;

    I did not say it was trivial, that was your interpretation, I said it was pointless, there is a difference.

    I am fully aware of how deep the question is, the deeper you go, the less answers there are.

    To explain my point more clearly, if one person knows something, someone else somewhere could know something too that is the complete opposite of what the first person knows. One person might prove it with a few examples and tests and it becomes adopted "knowledge", but then that "knowledge" could also be completely disproved by someone else who does a few tests and examples, and then we have a new adopted "knowledge".

    So in that sense it is impossible to know everything because knowledge by its very nature is infinite, just like numbers eg pie, we can learn more and more but we will never know everything. With all due respect, I am not sure if you understand the deepness of my answer.

    I am all for wondering and asking why everything is the way it is, that is the whole basis of evolution and progress but I just found this question extremely shallow and more suited to dare I say it, a scientific mind, but for some people I guess they found it stimulating so there is a point to it there.

    But to have the highest intellectuals in the country discussing it does disturb me somewhat and makes me think science has a lot of catching up to do, it's not all about right or wrong.

  • Comment number 92.

    As soon as I saw this absurd heading I was aware of the thought: "will we ever REALLY KNOW any thing?".

    Within our own defined terms we 'know' things - but a genuine investigation might ask - what is the presumed I that knows? What is IS knowing? WHAT really is being known - in any event or circumstance?

    No matter how ingeniously inventive a mind may be - its own reality to itself is built on presumptions that run exactly like a computer program. Unless of course we 'be still and know'. (In which case such programs can be observed along with the desires and beliefs that they are constituted of).

    The mind in exercising judgements and definitions attempts to control reality - and increasingly thereby suffers an oppositional reality to which it is helplessly victim.

    The mind in the presence and flow of awareness expresses an inherent movement that is the nature of the flow - and is characterized by a communioned trust. You could say this is a 'mystical' knowing - except it is universal and always already the case - a Universal knowing that is utterly beyond all dualistic mentality - yet is utterly native to your being.

    Explaining things and calling such explanation 'knowing' is utterly absurd. The absolutely interrelated nature of all things includes the act of consciousness itself. To assert a world outside of mind - and then attempt to 'know' it in order to control it for 'our own good' is to accept without question a starting point of willful self delusion.

    However, the investigation into the manifest world WILL yield fruits of an awakening and startling nature - for what we presume to be 'out there' will reveal itself - or be revealed - as a profound and inescapable nature - in which what we thought to be our mind is realized to be an instrument of feedback for a greater Mind - capitalized because the truth of mind we identify with exclusively is but an extension within what can be called Mind - yet cannot itself be known - except by its effects.
    And yet the DIRECT expressions of Mind - are of an order and quality whose nature constitutes all that truly Is. Much of what we take to be our mind is a superficial clutter and chatter - not unlike a static signal serving to jam or block the airwaves.

    Could there be any proof to what I suggest?

    Consider in honesty the following statement:
    “I do not know the thing I am, and THEREFORE do not know what 
    I am doing, where I am, or how to look upon the world and on my?
    self.” 

    Yet in this learning is salvation born. And what you are will 
    TELL you of Itself.
    (From A Course in Miracles)

  • Comment number 93.

    I have studied &converted to Buddhism over the past 2years.Buddhist beliefs seem strongly similar to the science and theories of quantem physics
    Buddhists believe that all things, including sentient life are interdependent on others. Connected to each other and originating from a single source.
    This would seem to correspond to atoms,macros.cosmic strings etc as expounded by Martin Rees and many other scientists.Also the way in which the various forces on earth are linked to others.
    would be interested in any comments or thoughts you might have.?

  • Comment number 94.

    What we shall never know . . . what happens to odd socks. This was a question raised at the lecture.

    I have made a study of what happens to odd socks. An article I wrote on the Odd Socks Mystery and the Secret of the Universe which it reveals, led to me having a marvelous week at St John’s College Cambridge in 1985 with about ten eminent people, including Rupert Sheldrake, in various fields of science. The show was run by the Koestler Foundation on ‘Boundary Experiences in Childhood and Old Age’. This is one of the experiences in my life which never cease to astonish me.

 

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