Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Unknown Unknowns

“Let the mind be enlarged to the grandeur of the mysteries, and not the mysteries contracted to the narrowness of the mind.” – Francis Bacon

Commuting to work, sometime in the future

You might say we’re living in modern times.

Of course, from their perspective, the people of 1910…or 1010…were also living in modern times. Will those to follow look back on us as quaint curiosities, misinformed relics of the past?

Consider the words of Donald Rumsfeld, Bush-era saber rattler and dispenser of pithy witticisms:

There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don't know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don't know we don't know.

Charles Robert Richet

I only recently found this passage from Our Sixth Sense by Charles Robert Richet (1850-1935), Nobel laureate in physiology:

Very strange, very wonderful, seemingly very improbable phenomena may yet appear which, when once established, will not astonish us more than we are now astonished at all that science has taught us during the last century.

It is assumed that the phenomena which we now accept without surprise, do not excite our astonishment because they are understood. But this is not the case. If they do not surprise us it is not because they are understood, it is because they are familiar; for if that which is not understood ought to surprise us, we should be surprised at everything, the fall of a stone thrown into the air, the acorn which becomes an oak, mercury which expands when it is heated, iron attracted by a magnet, phosphorus which burns when it is rubbed. . . .

Spaceport of tomorrow (from 1957)

The science of today is a light matter; the revolutions and evolutions which it will experience in a hundred thousand years will far exceed the most daring anticipations. The truths, those surprising, amazing, unforeseen truths which our descendants will discover, are even now all around us, staring us in the eyes, so to speak, and yet we do not see them.

But it is not enough to say that we do not see them; we do not wish to see them; for as soon as an unexpected and unfamiliar fact appears, we try to fit it into the framework of the commonplaces of acquired knowledge, and we are indignant that anyone should dare to experiment further.

House of the future (from 1956)


Laurence Holden said...

as I began to read your post I was reminded of the great contemporary philosopher Dick Cheney's laying the known and unknown finally to rest - and not far into your post there it was! Thanks for reminding us.

Anonymous said...

Eight years' ago, I saw someone land with a power pack on his back on the ridge opposite my home. He rested 20 minutes, adjusted his power pack and off he went. My neighbors and I were astonished felt as though we were watching a sci-fi movie.Amazing.