Boundaries of ignorance

The further you progress in the education system, the more you realise that there’s an awful lot you don’t know.  My MA in English Literature means I know a bit about the field in general, quite a lot about eighteenth-century novels and far too much about Henry Fielding.  But it also makes me realise how much there is about even my chosen fields that I don’t know.  Higher degrees mean learning more and more about less and less, but would I really want to study dozens of GCSE or A Level subjects and be frustrated, knowing that I had now scratched the surface of an awful lot of things?

A post elsewhere on WordPress really challenged me to think again about how little I know.  My education since completing my GCSE exams has been entirely arts-based, despite good results in the sciences, and if I am aware of the limits of my knowledge in these fields, how much worse must my grasp of scientific subjects be?  Anyway, the post challenged me to raid the Library of Doom for some popular science tomes, in order to push the boundaries of my ignorance back.  I have begun with A Brief History of Time, and it’s fascinating stuff, and I was particularly struck with Carl Sagan’s introductory comment that modern science is allowing us to grasp ‘both the very small and the very large’ at the same time.  Both the big and the small fill me with wonder.  The sight of the Milky Way stretching across the skies in a rural area, or a colony of ants working together to achieve the impossible.  A storm at sea or the complexity of the cells in our bodies.  These things can make me gasp with amazement and wonder, and the more I learn, the more amazed I am.  Have you ever stood at the base of an ancient tree and just looked up and up?  Or considered just how much goes on in a single cell in a plant or animal?  Wow.  I particularly remember a biology teacher at school, who said that no matter how long she’d been teaching, she was always struck by the miracle of conception and birth.  I am very much with her on that, although in terms of politics and religion we were (and probably still are) poles apart.

Anyway…   It sometimes strikes me that, as a Christian, some people assume that I don’t think, but I do the blind acceptance thing and never actually engage my mental processes.  This is not true.  I like to find things out, and I like to learn new things.  And I’m not going to reject any branch of science out of hand because some church leader or other has suggested that its conclusions are contrary to Christian thought.  I’m not stupid enough to pretend that natural selection doesn’t happen, but neither do I fully accept evolutionary theory.  I probably need to know a lot more about it, but in the meantime, questions like ‘how on Earth is the pancreas a result of random mutation(s)?’ spring to mind.

I’ve written before about the frustrating tendency for students to avoid actively learning in favour of being taught, and I hope I’m not like that.  Thinking and reasoning are exciting things to do, though more frustrating than learning by rote.  ‘What?’ is a very interesting question, but I prefer ‘Why?’ and ‘How?’ and if I’m honest, I rather enjoy just going ‘Oooh’ sometimes.  And so I do want to learn more, to give me more to reason and speculate with.  Which is why I have put Professor Hawking’s book down for a time.  You see, I’m finding it very interesting, and as I was told, surprisingly accessible for a scientific ignoramus like myself.  But there are general concepts that I feel I’m missing out on, so I need to take a step back.  To that end, I have selected two general overviews of modern science, which take in the very big, the very small, the very controversial and the very dull.  As I have some long train journeys ahead of me, I plan to finish at least one of them very shortly, so that I can return to cosmology. 

I’m hoping that my reading in science will broaden my horizons, force me to think more, and fill me with wonder at this universe once more.  I will be pushing at the boundaries of my ignorance, but I am well aware that the more I learn, the more I’ll discover that I don’t know.  That’s the problem with pushing outwards – your perimeter gets longer.  Ah well, if nothing else comes of this push, at least I’ll know a few more answers at Wine and Wisdom evenings!

  1. Bravo! If only more people in the world took that attitude – “I don’t think I know enough (in general or) about this; I’ll go find a way to learn more”. Very commendable, methinks 🙂

    Two – in comparison small – comments:

    I was considering your not quoting another WordPress writer. My first thought was “why not?” Isn’t quoting (with due linking, naturally) the way this works? Otoh, there could be something on that blog that limits or discourages quoting, so maybe you’re right.

    On the evolution thing, I can quite well understand the “temptation” to see a devine intervention – the concept of this minute step by minute step development is indeed mind boggling. But so is the span of time in which it happened…

    To me (please forgive me, I do hold a scientific degree 😉 ), one of things that makes me stick with Darwin and deselect the divinity is the thought along the lines of “if there is a divine design, why bother with creating Clostridium botulinum or ebola vira?” That, to my mind, make equqlly less sense.

  2. There is a reason for not linking – normally I would, but I thought in this case it would be best not to for reasons I won’t go into…

    I do tend to find that both science and Christianity (which are, of course, not mutually exclusive) leave you with big questions. The beginning of things, for instance. Either ‘stuff’ has always existed, or ‘God’ has always existed, or one of those came into being spontaneously, none of which explanations really make sense… As I undersand it, the theological approach is that God has always existed and the cosmological approach is that ‘before the Big Bang’ is a meaningless statement, but I don’t find either to be particularly satisfactory.

    • Phil
    • August 8th, 2006

    So which are the general overviews you’ve selected to start you on your journey into science?

    Being a christian (or of other faiths) and a scientist isn’t exclusive. I’ve a book written by a jesuit brother who is one of the vatican astronomers. Looking further back in history many advances in maths and science were done by muslims in the middle east while europe was in the ‘dark ages’.

    • Claire
    • August 8th, 2006

    Hello, have you tried Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything? I don’t know if it’s too low-brow for what you’re after, but I found it very interesting, and quite readable.

  3. I haven’t tried Bryso’s tome, which is unusual, as I like his writing. My chosen overviews are Almost Everyone’s Guide to Science’ by John Gribbin and a collection of essays called ‘How Things Are: A Science Tool-kit for the Mind’.

    Quite a lot of people at my church work for Pfizers, a major pharmaceuticals company, and seem to manage Christianity and scientistness without exploding very well. 🙂

    And having thought further, I’ve decided to put the link in, as an interesting question and answer session with myself revealed that my reasons for not including it were a bit strange. So thanks for nudging me, SGV (by the way, lovely pics of the moon!). I just need to find it again now…

  4. There’s a Norwegian writer called Eirik Newth who’s written a book called (my translation) “The Hunt for the Truth” – I cannot find an English version right now (German yes, and Danish also…)

    It kinda like a walk through all the developments, scientifically especially but also philosophically, made through history. Making a point out of how science, religion and philosophy tend very much to be linked and interdependent in how “the truth” is seen in a given society at a given point in time. And how they sometimes clash – and lead to new version of either of the three.

    (sort of ;))

    Interesting and a good read – if it pops up in English, I’d recommend it.

    • Phil
    • August 8th, 2006

    Do try Bill’s Short History. The book isn’t short but it does give a decent introduction to a lot of modern science along with the stories of how some of the ideas and things came about.

    I would also recomend the TV series Journeys in the Ring of Fire if geology and how some of the world works takes your interest. First shown on BBC4 but now getting a terestrial airing on BBC2. Fronted by a real geologist going out round the pacific rim seeing how volcanoes and continental movement have shaped mans thought and deeds in the area (Sunday nights, BBC2, 8pm)

  5. *takes notes* This is, of course, the curse of working in a library. You have access to all this fascinating stuff, but there’s no way you could ever read everything that interests you!

  6. I’d add another ‘thumbs-up’ for Bill Bryson’s book. Reading it made a lot of pennies drop into the right places.

  7. I know the perfect book for you. Unfortunately I can’t remember the title. And I can’t find it on the shelf.

    I’ll be back.

  8. How’s it going Mr Librarian? Are you still tackling the sciences?

    I’d add just about anything by Carl Sagon to your list of must-reads, simply because the man thinks and writes so clearly.

    I’d also recommend “The Selfish Gene” though I do find that since then Dawkins has turned into an agressive and scathing evangelial athiest, and I’ve not read his later stuff.

    *waves to everyone else in thte thread*


  9. Yes, I’m currently reading The Science of Discworld, which manages to sit nicely between the stools of ‘just for fun’ and ‘terribly informative’. My udnerstanding of physics is certainly greater, and I oddly find the world of electrons, neutrons protons and their chums rather fascinating.

    Evolution still bothers me. As ever, I get the general principles, but it’s just not a satisfactory explanation overall. Not that creationism is, either, of course. He says, not wanting to start an argument on the thread!

    The little things (like electrons) and the big things (like stars) are certainly making more sense now. It’s the things in between that fox me. Particularly DNA – amazing stuff!

    Carl Sagan – I’ve read Contact (not seen the film, though) but haven’t tackled any of his non-fiction.

  1. August 10th, 2006
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