The Known Unknowns: The Unsolved Mysteries of the Cosmos
Not Knowing should be inspiring....
I just finished the manuscript of my new book and have sent it off to my publishers in the UK, Head of Zeus, and was pleased to discover that they had already created catalogue copy for the book, which is scheduled to come out in May 2023. I don’t yet know the release date in the US, nor which publisher may publish it there, but hoping to arrange publication with one in the coming week or two.
The book’s subject was suggested to me in 2020 by the publisher at Head of Zeus, Anthony Cheetham, who published my last book, The Physics of Climate Change, in the UK, based on his fascination with the 1930 book by Sir James Jeans’ book, The Mysterious Universe. This book has a huge impact at the time in exciting the public about emerging knowledge about the cosmos. Read almost 100 years later, it seems quaint, but that is the power of science, and demonstrates how much progress has been made in the intervening century.
And that is the power of acknowledging mystery today. As I have often said, the words “I don’t know” are an invitation to discover, and all parents and teachers, as well as politicians, should be encouraged to use them more. If we don’t accept the current limits of our knowledge, we will never move beyond them.
When I announced the book title some people on twitter took umbrage at the allusion to the famous quote of Donald Rumsfeld, which is actually one of two quotes I use at the very beginning of the book:
“As we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns—the ones we don't know we don't know.”
I have never been a fan of Donald Rumsfeld, but that doesn’t mean, like too many young people today unfortunately feel, that I should therefore ignore everything he said. And that quote beautifully frames the three extremes of knowledge and ignorance. I have written many books and articles about things we know we know, and I would love to write about those things we don’t know we don’t know, but of course that is impossible—if I could write about them, then by definition, they wouldn’t be unknown unknowns.
What is most fascinating about the known unknowns, however, is that this subject takes us to the edge of knowledge, which for scholars at least, is the most exciting place to be. I also think that many among the public should find this the most exciting place as well. Everyone, at some point in their lives, asked themselves fundamental questions about the unknown, and the unknown possibilities of existence are fascinating for all of us to ponder.
Most people crave certainty, even though that certainty is often an illusion. While science may not satisfy that need, it replaces it with something better, a path toward knowledge. I like to think we are better off taking solace in the brave and adventurous attitude of the physicist Richard Feynman, who I also quote at the beginning of the book,
I don't feel frightened not knowing things, by being lost in a mysterious universe without any purpose, which is the way it really is as far as I can tell.
Purpose or not, once I decided to write about the unknown, it gave me the opportunity to take readers on a ride to the edge, to discuss the remarkable discoveries that have taken us to our current precipice of knowledge. And that task was both exciting and challenging.
The book took almost a year longer than I had expected. To be sure this was part due to distracting external circumstances, but it was also because I needed to delve into issues beyond pure physics and cosmology, as obviously questions of the origins of life, and consciousness remain vital open questions of interest to humanity. While I have been fortunate to have run workshops and meetings on both of these question with experts, to properly frame these questions involved spending some time getting caught up on current developments. It was demanding, but fun, but that is one of the reasons why I write books. If I didn’t have to learn new material in the process of writing them, they would all be the same book, packaged in different forms.
I will be including in Critical Mass from time to time some subjects from the book, between now and publication, and I promise an excerpt from the book as well. I hope you will enjoy these, and I will look forward to feedback from Critical Mass readers,, This can help guide me as I think about future presentations of this material, but also may help me make further edits on the book before it goes to press.
Right now, though, I am njoying the decompression that occurs in the brief lull between finishing a manuscript and the year-long grind of editing, revising, editing, proofing etc that eventually results in something we can actually hold in our hands.