I recently came across a press release announcing the appointment of a “Professor of the Unknown” at a British university which is apparently the first such appointment in the world.
According to the press release, the purpose of the professorship will be to “advance mankind’s understanding of the Unknown and the Unknowable.” It is situated in the Science and Engineering Faculty of Redhill University.
The Dean of Redhill University is recorded as saying; “I congratulate Professor Barbara Doubtless on her appointment as Professor of the Unknown. She comes to us with a formidable reputation for challenging the scientific community, which I know she will continue to do in her new role. This is a world leading initiative and I expect other top tier universities in developed economies to follow suit with the creation of similar departments.”
Struggling to understand the focus of Professor Doubtless’s future work and with the uneasy feeling that here is another academic making a living doing nothing useful or relevant, I requested an interview with the professor.
I was lucky enough on behalf of HumanObservatory.com to be the only journalist to be granted time with the professor. Armed with hard-hitting, insightful questions, I interviewed her on her first day in office.
Human Observatory: Congratulations Professor on your exciting new role. How did the Science of the Unknown come about?
Professor Doubtless: The thing that really kick-started this research was Donald Rumsfeld’s reference in 2002 during the Iraqi war to what he described as “Unknown Unknowns”.
There was a large body in the academic community that felt that if there were really Unknowns that we did not know much about, then it required a focused research effort to know more about these Unknowns. Out of this enquiry came the Science of the Unknowns.
HO: Not sure I got all that. But surely given the advance of science, there is not all that much that remains unknown?
Professor Doubtless: You might think so. An intelligent person puts together three great discoveries and wrongly believes they explain our universe. First, the Big Bang as the origin of the universe. Second, atomic physics describing atomic and molecular structures of matter. And third, evolution describing how life on Earth came to be.
According to these three discoveries, humans are a bunch of evolved carbon-based molecules with a self-determined future on planet Earth which is gently orbiting in its place in an expanding universe. Everything seems explained: QED.
HO: Like I said, our scientists seem to know an awful lot ….
Professor Doubtless: Actually scientific confidence peaked in the 1950s as the early promise of quantum physics started to get bogged down in ever more complex equations and theories
Now after decades of awkward findings from advanced quantum physics and other disciplines, scientists are offering up ever more abstract and convoluted theories. In fact, the maths and explanations are getting so complex that scientists are in danger of disappearing up their own black holes.
HO: Interesting analogy, professor.
Professor Doubtless: Let me also say, these ridiculously simple diagrams we see on TV and in popular science articles of double helixes, rotating atoms or human brain cells firing and creating sparks of light are all hopelessly simple and give us all a false sense of understanding.
So, it is now time to state the obvious: we understand very little about anything and what little we do understand has huge gaps in explaining our world.
HO: Even after centuries of scientific endeavour?
Professor Doubtless: Not only are their huge Unknowns, but there are things that as humans, with a limit to our intelligence and imagination, that we can never expect to understand or explain. These are the Unknowables.
HO: I think I see … can you give me some examples?
Professor Doubtless: OK, let’s start with the universe as the first example. Scientists admit that they can only account for 5% of the mass of the universe with such things as stars, planets, gases and other matter. The other 95% is made up of something called ‘Dark Matter’ (27%) and the even more abstract ‘Dark Energy’ (68%).
At the leading edge of science, our brightest are putting up hypothetical theories about Dark Matter and Dark Energy, but really we don’t even begin to understand these major components of our universe. Plus we should ask ourselves: what else is there out there that we haven’t even be able to measure or conceptualise?
Professor Doubtless: Example 2, let’s look at what makes up the matter that is the 5% of the universe that we think we understand.
At the beginning of the 20th century, it became clear that electrons, protons and neutrons weren’t the base building blocks of atoms and molecules. Early quantum physics gave us explanations of another level of smaller items such as neutrinos, photons and the celebrated Higgs Buson that would simply be a bunch of even smaller items that make up the slightly bigger stuff.
But further advances in quantum physics came up with bizarre things like Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, Antimatter and Particle Entanglement that we can’t possibly imagine outside a mathematical equation.
And today the most commonly accepted theory for matter rests with the still emerging String Theory. This theory has it that the basic building blocks of matter are a series of vibrating sub-particle-scale strings that interact to form everything else. To make the maths work we need to think of these as operating in 10 or even 26 dimensions. Not just the four dimensions that you and I understand of space and time.
Nobody has come up with a description of what these additional dimensions are or how might we visualize them. And then what are strings themselves made of?
And here I can quote Richard Feynmen, a Nobel Prize winning theoretical physicist, who once said, “I think I can safely say that nobody understands quantum mechanics (physics).”
HO: I am beginning to see that there are some gaps.Any more examples?
Professor Doubtless: Example 3: the human brain and human consciousness. Popular science articles have it that the brain is a series of interconnected nerve cells organized into regions of the brain which dictate our behaviour. Using brain scans we supposedly can “see” parts of the brain operating and “lighting up like Christmas Trees” when neurons switch on and switch off. Surely, people think, we are only a few years from understanding every connection and then we can explain fully how the brain works.
HO: Aren’t we?
Professor Doubtless: Awkwardly, there are some 125 trillion synapses in the cerebral cortex alone. Scans do not measure the actual firing of individual neurons but the comparative uptake of oxygen in a part of the brain as a proxy for increased neuron activity which happens after a several second delay. And even if we identify that a group of a billion or so synapses are firing more than they were before, how do we actually know what they are doing or what the subject’s brain is “thinking about”? We don’t know and we can’t know.
And then does science have an explanation for one of the most critical questions for humans: what is human consciousness? Here the scientists start blushing and refer you to the Philosophy Department on the other side of campus. So in reality science can’t even start to answer some of the most basic questions about ourselves.
HO: Gosh …
Professor Doubtless: In all three areas, let’s also remember that these scientists use high tech instruments that produce images and graphs that are only simple representations of the underling data analysed by advanced computer programs.
The scientists themselves are operating at an intelligence level so much ahead of the rest of us that they communicate amongst each other in advanced mathematical formula and usually bad English. There are only a few people on earth that can even pretend to engage in a meaningful discussion at this level and they are fellow scientists looking to each other for validation.
By definition, these scientists aren’t normal people. I mean, how do we know that they are even sane? This is another great Unknown that I will be researching.
HO: Wow! Incredible! … Professor Doubtless, we have to end the interview there. Thanks very much for your time and good luck in your endeavours. I am pleased to present you with a year’s free subscription to HumanObservatory.com.