Wednesday, September 30, 2009

I don't know

Humphry Davy was one of the best known and revered British scientists of the early 19th century. His specialties were chemistry and electricity, both in their infancy as experimental sciences. Davy is remembered as the discoverer of a half-dozen elements, including sodium, potassium and calcium. Perhaps his greatest discovery was Michael Faraday, who he hired as his assistant at the Royal Institution in London.

Looking back, he said of his work: "The first step towards the attainment of real discovery was the humiliating confession of ignorance."

"I don't know." The most underused words in any language.

We are loath to confess our ignorance. It was only when a few brave men and women dared to say "I don't know" that science began. Those three words are the foundation for everything reliable we have learned about the world.

Why is there something rather than nothing? I don't know. Why are the laws of nature what they are? I don't know. What came before the Big Bang? I don't know. How did life begin on Earth? I don't know. How does a single cell reliably develop into a sea cucumber or an elephant? I don't know. What were the precise evolutionary steps that led to the blood-clotting cascade or adaptive immune system? I don't know.

All subjects for further inquiry.

Those who are loath to confess ignorance are apt to say "God did it" -- and that's that, case closed. "God did it" has exactly the same information content as "I don't know." And closes the door to future understanding.