The importance of ignorance in driving progress.
Ignorance is an undercurrent that permeates all fields of science. Whilst it’s easy to associate science and knowledge, without ignorance there would be no science left to do. Ignorance is, to put it bluntly, the impetus behind all scientific progress.
Driving blindly ahead into the realm of the unknown is what time and time again reshapes our understanding of our universe. That’s the beautiful aspect of scientific ignorance – we have no idea what we’re going to prove next, and we’re somewhat clueless as to what we could discover with each new piece of work. Sure, we can make reasonable predictions (hypotheses) based on what we already know. A lot of the time, we also make pretty good guesses. But what happens when established theory is proven to be false? Well, that’s when entire paradigms shift. The phoenix that is science can only then be reborn as something new.
Paradoxically, the most exciting science occurs when established ideas are shattered. Einstein had to dismantle Newton’s theories, and some cosmologists working towards understanding the universe on the grandest scales are currently toying with the possibility that Einstein wasn’t entirely correct with his gravitational model (general relativity). This is the kind of science that keeps us pushing forward.
The moment we lose vigilance and take established understanding for granted, science stops. We must always, as scientists, be aware that what we’re using to describe our observations are in fact models –falsifiable theories that could be disproven in an instant. That’s what separates science from more dogmatic schools of thought – it’s adaptable and self-aware enough to be open to admitting it may never have the full picture.
Up until the 16th century, most Europeans* believed that the earth was at the centre of the universe. A man called Copernicus then came along and convinced the continent otherwise, placing the sun at the centre. We subsequently realised that the sun is merely a single star of billions, and in 1925 Edwin Hubble discovered the andromeda galaxy – the first object outside of our own milky way. He then measured the recession of other galaxies, which led to the big bang theory and our current understanding of everything.
But let’s not kid ourselves. We’re far from done. The pattern will surely repeat itself – maybe our new understanding will suggest our universe is one of many floating in an infinite multiverse, a tiny speck on the grandest scales. Maybe Einstein’s wrong, maybe the moon really is made of cheese. As far as I’m aware, nobody’s thought to taste it.
Let’s keep this spirit of ignorance, this joy borne of not knowing. Admitting we’re not sure has led to the discovery of DNA, landed man on the moon and helped us examine animal intelligences without prejudice. Open minded and humble, let’s keep doing science, knowing that we’ll most likely never truly be finished.
* Stress on this point – whilst our corner of the world took a while to get off the ground, medieval Europe was 600 years behind a certain school of Muslim astronomers. There’s also significant evidence that Copernicus poached his ideas from a Greek philosopher called Aristarchus of Samos from 200BC.