Book reviews / Musings

A little knowledge…

What’s that saying? More important that knowing what you know is knowing what you don’t know? Or something like that…I don’t exactly know. Anyway, it’s a sentiment I agree with but that awareness of what we don’t know is often lacking (I include myself in this).

I remember seeing something on four type knowledge (I wish I could find it and link it here):

  1. what we know we know,
  2. what we know we don’t know,
  3. what we don’t know we don’t know, and
  4. what we think we know

And the article or TED talk or blog post made the argument that the key wasn’t increasing #1 (there’s only so much our organic brains can hold, after all). No, the key was reducing #4, moving things from there into either 1 or 2. What we know we don’t know is as valuable as, or maybe more than, what we know.

Recognizing what you don’t know means being open to new ideas and the knowledge of others. I think nowadays it’s often taken as a sign of weakness or inferiority to say you don’t know something. But it should be a considered a strength that you’re willing to admit that.

And, I would say, being curious about what you know you don’t know is the foundation for scientific inquiry. Which leads me to We Have No Idea: A Guide to the Unknown Universe.

Baby dwarf galaxies – from the NASA Image and Video Library

I recently finished this book by Jorge Cham and Daniel Whiteson. Rather than focusing the book on the things we do know, they discuss a number of things we don’t know about the universe, from what dark energy is to the mystery of gravity to whether we’re alone in the universe. It might seem like this would be a heavy, hard-to-digest tome.

This content of the book is actually very readable and approachable by a layperson like myself, with a number of entertaining asides. Which makes some sense, given that Cham is a cartoonist as well as having a PhD in Robotics (while Whiteson is physics professor). I still feel like I need to re-read some sections — I freely admit it covered a lot of topics that I know I don’t know — but that’s something I want to do, not something I dread.

Actually I wish they had another book on the things we’re pretty sure we know and why we’re pretty sure about them, written in the same approachable manner. But maybe they cover that in their new podcast, which I’ve added to my list.

I promised a book review of this book in my review of The Linesman. This isn’t exactly a review, but I do recommend the book if you’re trying to wrap your head around the universe. Figuratively speaking.

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